Durham student robbed of £1,600 in accommodation scam

By Eugene Smith

A Durham student spending the third year of his languages degree abroad has fallen victim to an accommodation scam that has left him £1,593 out of pocket and with nowhere to stay.

The student, who wished to remain anonymous, had arranged a rental agreement with seemingly legitimate partners in Heidelberg, Germany, over the summer before his residence there.

He was asked to provide a scan of his passport, and to pay in advance a deposit in addition to one month’s rent, totalling £1,043.

Having previously consulted his lecturer, the student complied, but his suspicions were raised when within a few days he was asked for a further two months’ rent.

In an email, his point of contact ‘Maxie’ claimed the supposed landlady ‘Catrina’ needed extra funds to retain her place in an American university, saying: “She want you [sic] to pay her… so she can make use of the money to solve her problem.

“I would be glad if you can make it up and pay the two months rent [sic] to help the poor orphan.”

When the Year Abroader declined to make the payment, the scammers stopped returning his emails and phone calls.

Despite immediately contacting Action Fraud, the Passport Office and his bank, the student has been unable to retrieve any of the money he has lost. With the cost of two unnecessary flights in and out of Heidelberg and a hotel bill for the first few nights he spent there, his losses stand at just under £1,600.

The fraud victim, who has since returned home indefinitely, told Palatinate the ordeal has put him “in a very rough place”.

He added: “You hear about it happening to other people, but you never think it’ll be you. I hope by me sharing this story, other people can avoid this happening to them.”

“Certain landlords were very unresponsive and unhelpful. Some of them false-advertised”

Other students have also noted the difficulties of sourcing Year Abroad accommodation.

Beatrice Mather-Cosgrove, a third-year Combined Honours English and French student, told Palatinate: “My experience of finding accommodation on my Year Abroad was quite a nightmare.

“Certain landlords were very unresponsive and unhelpful. Some landlords false advertised. For instance, one studio was described as fully furnished and seemed to tick all the boxes. I make the journey and there is no bed, no desk and the wardrobe is outside of the bedroom besides the kitchen… Not quite my idea of furnished!

“One particular problem in France is many landlords or more particularly, agencies, require a French guarantor.

“I did not have one of these (most of my fellow Erasmus friends did not either), which made the process even harder. I felt like support and advice from my University was majorly lacking. I didn’t even bother to email as several emails I sent over summer were completely ignored.”

Durham University estimates around 500 of its students undertake foreign exchange each year, and according to Professor Danny Donoghue, the Dean for Internationalisation, it is “very rare that students become victims of false rental agreements”.

Professor Donoghue told this newspaper: “Durham University aims to be a globally networked university and is proud to be involved in more than 240 student exchange agreements under the Erasmus+ and International Exchange programmes.

“For students preparing to study abroad, the University offers a series of pre-departure briefings, both at a University level and from individual Departments.

“Support for exchange students is also provided by Durham University and the host university prior to, and throughout, the period abroad.”

When asked what action prospective Year Abroad students should take to avoid such scams, Professor Donoghue said: “Students are responsible for sourcing and applying for accommodation and are made aware, at the time of application, that not all partners are able to provide housing and they may need to make private arrangements.

“We advise students not to transfer any money for accommodation they have not seen in person.”

Photograph: Anonymous

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