Looking for a room? Watch out for scammers with the help of this Facebook group

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Social media is one of the most common avenues students use to find accommodation and roommates these days. Aware of that, private landlords often join Facebook groups aimed at students to advertise their properties for rent. However, students should beware that not all rooms and studios advertised in these groups are legit. 

To help them separate the wheat from the chaff, Cheung, a former student of the university of applied sciences in The Hague, started the group “(Dutch) Housing Experience and Scammers Exposed”, which currently counts over 8,000 members. There, scammers trying to fool students are named and shamed.

Cheung got scammed herself through the website Marktplaats (where people buy and sell used goods in the Netherlands) when she was a student, not to mention she had to turn to the rent tribunal to fight a landlord that was charging her more money than he was legally allowed to. The court ruled in her favour that the rent should be lowered, but she never got back the money she’d overpaid – about 3,000 euros – because she didn’t know how to. 

Cheung went on to found a student housing agency in The Hague after graduating, six years ago, but constantly seeing scammers on Facebook groups bothered her so much that she wanted to do something to help students from other cities. That’s when the group came to life.

The group is private, meaning that the posts are only visible to members. Those interested in joining it must first answer a few questions. “We do our best to avoid scammers from joining the page to learn new tactics”, says Cheung, adding that many charlatans have tried to gain access to it. 

The page started as a solo effort, but now, in addition to the posts written by accommodation-seekers themselves, there are also non-students who voluntarily dedicate some of their free time to identifying scammers across different Facebook groups. 

Red flags
But how do they know when someone is a scammer or not? Cheung explains that they tend to use the same tactics, so after a while, it becomes rather easy to recognise them. “If the ad is vague about the location of the room or apartment, it’s usually a scam. Same if the pictures are of bad quality, or the price is low”. She also advises taking a look at the person’s profile. “The first thing to check is whether they are in the Netherlands”. Running a reverse image search is a good next step. Usually, scammers use stock photos or pictures stolen from other people’s profiles.

Another red flag, of course, is when they ask for students to pay fees or rent upfront, usually through wire transfer services like Western Union. UU’s website warns international students not to do this, but at the same time, they are advised to start their search for accommodation several months before the start of the academic year, which means they will be doing it from afar. Talking to DUB last September, UU’s policy advisor for student housing, Lenn Lankin, said: “if you find a place to stay before the start of the academic year, don’t turn it down just because you don’t need it. At least you have something! If you don’t take it, somebody else will. Be prepared to pay for a couple of months of rent in advance, if needed”. In a recent interview with DUB, UU’s Vice-President Margot van der Starre said the housing shortage is so dire that UU is considering telling students not to come to Utrecht if they don’t have a room lined up already. “But some of them will come anyway”, she stated. This pressure to find something from a distance and secure whatever they can find may render international students more vulnerable to scammers.

“It’s always better to search when you’re already in the country and you can go to the viewings and hospiteeravonden (when a student house invites several candidates over to choose who among them will be their roommate Ed). My advice would be to find other future students and rent an Airbnb for at least one month together”, Cheung counterargues.

Bad landlords  
However, in her view, fake ads aren’t the only way people can scam students. Cheung says that, even when the landlord is legit and the apartment does exist, internationals are often taken advantage of with unfair rental contracts, some of them with arrangements that aren’t even legal. For her, sky-high rents, service fees, and utility costs that are not returned if the tenant uses less than the amount paid each month are scams just the same. “Internationals are not familiar with Dutch tenancy law, so they don’t know when something is not allowed”, she explains. That can make for unpleasant surprises, like having to move out all of a sudden because the apartment was mortgaged and the landlords weren’t allowed to rent in the first place. “In that case, the tenant doesn’t have any rights. They have to move out, that’s it”. If you’re unsure whether your rental contract respects the Dutch tenancy law, you can upload it to RentReturn.nl for a free check, Cheung recommends.

“There are even students scamming students”, she exclaims, mentioning a recent case of a student who wanted to sublet his room and asked those interested for money to move them up on the list. “This person heard that he was being denounced on our group, and he sent us some angry messages arguing that it wasn’t right to call him a scammer because what he was doing wasn’t illegal. Well, it might not be illegal, but it’s certainly unethical”. Speaking of unethical, Cheung notes that the low supply of rooms has even paved the way for sexual harassment. “Girls have been asked for sex in exchange for a room. It’s not always money”.

As the housing shortage is not going away anytime soon, Cheung wants to empower international students to recognise scammers and learn the basics of Dutch tenancy law. She’s preparing a webinar. “It’s probably going to be ready by May”, she says, adding that she plans on getting in touch with different universities to ask if they’re interested in supporting the project financially or by recommending it to the students. If you’re interested in knowing more about the upcoming webinar, you can get in touch with Cheung’s agency through this e-mail address.