Amsterdam is one of the most popular cities in the world … and by extension, one of the most difficult places to find an affordable apartment anywhere near Centrum.
The lack of affordable apartments in Amsterdam is more than frustrating. It opens people – especially expats – up to scammers.
One of the biggest psychological factors working against expats is the urge to jump on a great place. That’s when the scammers use pressure to give them cash “before someone else gets it,” according to the people we interviewed.
That limits the prospective renter’s opportunities to do due diligence. “If you’re desperate, they can smell it,” said one person who got scammed.
Take our close friend Charlie.
When he first arrived in Amsterdam from Brussels, Belgian expat Charlie De Wilde found it next to impossible to find a place in the Centrum.
He was encouraged by all his friends and contacts to join the Facebook housing groups. So he did.
Sure enough, he saw a woman offering a very nice apartment only five minutes from his new job. She was an American woman with a generic name and a fuzzy Facebook profile. “Something like ‘Jenny Smith.’ She worked at Texas Roadhouse in Texas ….” Charlie said.
“So I PM’d her, ‘Very interested in the apartment. Can you give me some details? And can I look at it?’
“She replied she was not in town but the landlord could show me around.”
Charlie emails the “landlord” but she keeps putting off the viewing with endless excuses why she can’t meet while pressuring him to put down a deposit sight unseen to guarantee he gets the apartment.
Which is how the scams often begin.
Before we plunge in, understand that finding a place in the Netherlands – anywhere in the Netherlands – is tough, even for legitimate rentals. Unless you’re with a large multinational company that uses a particular rental agency and legacy apartments, it’s going to be tough to get real estate agents to even show you an apartment or house.
When I was searching for a place in May 2016 as a DIY expat with my own company, I was told I’d have to submit all financial information TO GET ON A LIST to see apartments in Eindhoven!
But no one asked me to pay a deposit up-front before I could look, which happens in Amsterdam. A lot.
Apartment deposit scams have almost endless variations. But the basic scheme in Amsterdam is scammers posing as the owner of, or agent for, a really sweet apartment right on a canal that happens to be incredibly affordable. Sometimes they actually have access to the unit and show it, get the deposit and disappear.
But the end game is always the same: To coerce their targets into making advanced deposits, typically via Western Union money orders.
Fighting back against the scammers
With social media, some people are fighting back.
Debbie Ni Luain posted on the Expat Tips in Amsterdam public Facebook about one scammer who made an estimated 1,000 euros in less than 90 minutes including her deposit.
Just posting another warning ⚠️
Last month an asshole scammed (me) and at least 5 others out of deposits for a room in Westerpark. His name is Luigi Lamberti, he’s 31. The address was 1 Polanenstraat, not sure if he still lives there as (I) and another girl had him arrested.
In an interview via Facebook Direct Messenger, Ni Luain told Dispatches Lamberti got deposits from six other people within the same week he contacted her “and literally dozens of others who had arrangements to go and view the apartment.
“Just from me and Jackie (another person trying to rent the room) he got over 1,000 euros in under an hour and a half, and that’s only the money that I know he got that day. He could’ve met five or six other people for all we know!”
Guillaume B. also gave Lamberti a deposit. Guillaume found the room advertised on a well-known expat Facebook site “with thousands and thousands of people inside the group.”
He said he and Lamberti did a Skype tour of the property. And he showed us the handwritten document from Lamberti confirming his deposit and stating Guillaume would “enter the room on Polanenstraat 1 on the 21st of August.”
Finally, he gave Guillaume copies of his identification and his bank information: “He was making this so credible.”
But working on such an ambitious scale means some scammers are vulnerable.
Ni Luain contacted a third person who’d fallen for the scam and both confronted Lamberti, whose name shows up on multiple complaints on Facebook groups and on blogs.
The two women recorded the confrontation and went to police, who Ni Luain says arrested Lamberti. They even went to the police station and gave evidence.
But Ni Luain said police have shown little interest. “I’ve been to the police a few times, but apparently he’s a ‘small-time criminal’ so there’s no rush in apprehending him,” she said.
“I’m furious at the situation. I’ve even had more people contact me in the meantime who he’s recently got money off of.”
Because Lamberti took her money, Ni Luain said, she ended up without a place to stay and had to move back to her native Dublin:
“I lost a great job and the chance of a lifetime to live in Amsterdam because of this asshole. Apparently the police are watching him and trying to gather evidence. I hope to God they actually do something because the [thought] of someone else going through what I went through is heartbreaking.”
Digital detective work
Charlie de Wilde said renters are up against some wily criminals.
“I almost fell for it … it was a very elaborate scam,” he said. In his case, the scam might have involved a two-person team, or one person sending emails from two IP addresses. “Who knows?”
The great price and location made him suspicious from the first. “I said, ‘Let’s see how far this goes.’ ”
Still, his skepticism led Charlie to do a little digital detective work.
“There were photos of the apartment windows that showed views of the street. I used Google maps and found the exact place and started to compare the window views in the photos and the views around the city and nothing matched.”
“I watch too much CSI.”
Lots of online Amsterdam references
Failing CSI, here are some tips to help you fight the apartment deposit scammers.
• There are lots of apartments posted on Facebook, Craigslist and other social-media sites. But caveat emptor. “Every second post on the rental sites is a scammer!” says Debbie Ni Luain. Might be better to stick to conventional real estate sites such as XpatRentals.
• The least sophisticated scams seem to be people simply advertising nonexistent apartments online. They hope people are desperate to secure a place and willing to suspend their common sense and send them a deposit. “The owner will mail you the keys.” Okay!
• A lot of scams involve someone advertising an apartment they don’t own, but have access to. If the owner and the “landlord” who wants you to give them a deposit are not the same, ask why. Then make some calls and figure out if the landlord and/or leasing agent has authorization to actually rent the property.
• A big scam is people who rent apartments, then sublet them for a higher rent and pocket the difference without reporting the income. Which is illegal in the Netherlands. Yes, you can sublet from a friend who’s leaving town for a long-term assignment. But they’d have to be a very trustworthy friend, and the property owner must consent.
• If you’re living in another country and planning to move to the Netherlands, it might seem like a good idea to shop in advance for an apartment online and reserve it before your arrival. Eh, no.
Better to book temporary housing for a sufficient period, long enough to visit multiple properties. The less pressure you’re under to find a place, the more time you’ll take doing due diligence and making sure everything is legit.
• One of the best resources is IAmsterdam, the official city website. One of the best IAmsterdam tips is to talk to people living around the property you’re considering. They might tip you off to a scam right off the bat and save you time, money and frustration.
• Again on IAmsterdam, you should be suspicious if the “landlord” wants fees beyond the deposit. Deposits are legal, but other fees such as agency fees, disproportionally high administration fees or contract fees are not.
If you get hit with this, you might be able to claim a refund if you live in Amsterdam. The Meldpunt agency can help you reclaim illegal fees.
The illusion of getting a beautiful, affordable apartment in the center of Amsterdam is a seductive one that never quite fades.
Charlie De Wild says his near-escape still haunts him.
“I still pass by that address every day on the way to work and think, ‘This is the building they said I’d be living in.’
“Maybe I wanted to believe it because it was just too close to my job.”