One of the first harsh experiences related to moving to the Netherlands is a student-room search. In cities like Utrecht or Amsterdam, the shortage of available accommodation within reasonable price range is causing very distressing situations for newly coming international students. One does not know the city, nor the local conditions of living – thus ending in situations such as paying extremely high rent for the tinniest un-heated room in the world’s most dodgy area, or even worse: becoming a victim of vicious rental scammers. These usually include paying up front (monthly rent + safety deposit), but later on either realising the room got rented to multiple tenants at the same time, or in some cases the room never even existed. Rental scammers take advantage of students who did not get student housing and have to, often remotely, search for a room on their own. Encountering a textbook example of rental fraud myself, I realised that despite my very high paranoia level I was not able to spot anything suspicious about the ad. Well, not in the first place.
Could there be any visual strategy for detecting the frauds?
When talking about the remote room search, the huge disadvantage is not being able to visit the location in person. What is left are offered images of the apartment. But these seemingly trustworthy photos of a apartment can reveal much more, than just how much IKEA furniture can fit in there. Desperate as I was, under time pressure and insecure about the deal, I started to look in better detail on the pictures. And I started to notice things. For instance, most of the photos had one thing in common: from some reason you could not see outside of the windows. Either there were curtains everywhere (which is weird in the Netherlands especially, right?) or so much bright sunlight coming through, that everything outside the window turned white (wait, bright sunlight in the Netherlands? Even weirder!).
First logical thing to do for me was to check the neighbourhood area on Google Maps – from the beginning just out of pure curiosity, but later it turned out to be a proof mechanism. Ok, I could not see outside the windows, but I definitely saw the window shape: tall, french balcony, decorative metal bars. Let’s check the other side – from the Google Street View perspective. Oh, funny – a concrete housing block, large squared windows, no balconies, no southern-like decor on the building at all.
In my case, I was just about to have a Skype call with the owner. Well, a chat, in the end. I confronted her with my observation, and I got a peculiar answer: “You see only what you want to see.” Only at that moment I realised I was talking with a chat-bot.
As my search progressed, I got signed up at multiple websites and started getting offers directly in my mailbox. Even after I was already happily a resident of proper apartment owned by existing people, I got interested in documenting these e-mails and images. At least 80% were obvious scams. Another 15% were, let’s say, a bit more sophisticated version of scams, but still easy to spot since I started testing the images. Just for fun, try it for yourself. Another, very fast and idiot-proof method is the reverse image search on Google. Go ahead and see in how many cities on this planet is the same living-room, the same blinded view and the same spectacular price 🙂
Because I was in touch with many other students, who happened to be rental frauds victims, I made this small awareness campaign. A booklet with printed examples of fraud e-mails, describing the most common signs and strategies the scammers were using, plus an animated banner for online use at the student websites. The banner was designed to catch the eye of a website visitor by its kinetic movement. The continuous line is drawing fragments of buildings or urban city structure, while writing the message about being smart while searching. The line ends with the click-able button linked to the Google Maps website. You can see the banner here/.