- International TU Delft students Rahul and David were telephoned by the ‘police’ who said that they were suspects in a drugs investigation.
- Afraid that their visas would be revoked, they cooperated with the ‘investigation’. They gave access to their computers and transferred thousands of euros to ensure they could stay in the Netherlands.
- The students were the victims of telephone fraud. They transferred almost all their savings to criminals.
- The FraudeHelpdesk has already received 13,212 reports about this particular scam. On average, 151 victims lost EUR 8,500.
- As international students are particularly vulnerable to fraud, Rahul and David plea for more attention to be paid to prevention.
- The consequences for the victims are huge. They suffer financial and mental health problems.
It is 17 December 2021. In the week before Christmas, Rahul’s bicycle is stolen. He grumpily makes an account on the second-hand marketplace, Marktplaats. He fills in his telephone number and contacts a seller of second-hand bikes.
The next day he searches the internet to see how to report the theft online. Within one hour of doing his search, he is phoned by an unknown number. His phone shows 070-3707911, the phone number of the Ministry of Justice and Security.
Apart from his personal data, the police found 22 kilos of cocaine
He answers. A robot’s voice tells him that he has received a message from the police. Rahul is put through to ‘police officer’ James Wagnor and hears that his burgerservicenummer (citizen service number, BSN) was found at the scene of a drug raid in Amsterdam. Apart from his personal data, the police found 22 kilos of cocaine, 10 fake bank accounts and blood.
David (not his real name) too received a similar phonecall. An ‘officer’ stressed that he must not talk about it with anyone as his data may be used by criminals.
David and Rahul are both studying at TU Delft. Rahul for over a year, but David only arrived in the Netherlands a couple of months ago. Both students are shocked by the news that they are connected to a criminal offence. Afraid that their visas would be revoked and their studies at TU Delft thus jeopardised, they cooperated fully.
Officer Wagnor puts Rahul through to Roger Wilson, ‘Advocate General’ at the Public Prosecution Service. Wilson tells him that outsiders have access to his BSN and that all activities connected to his personal data are under investigation. While the investigation is ongoing, his visa and bank account would be frozen. Rahul asks for details, but the Advocate General advises him not to ask any more questions on the grounds that the less he knows, the smaller the chance that he gets a prison sentence.
With the alarming thought of prison and not being able to complete his studies, Rahul is relieved when Officer Wilson tells him that he qualifies for a temporary visa. He is also given the opportunity to make his savings ‘safe’. Rahul is then put through to someone in the ‘legal department’.
To ensure that criminals do not have access to his laptop, Rahul, on the advice of the ‘legal department’ downloads the AnyDesk programme. This software allows the legal employee to supposedly investigate any suspicious activity on his laptop. While the employee is doing that, Rahul transfers EUR 6,000 from his ABN Amro savings account to a temporary ING account that is supposedly managed by the Public Prosecution Service.
Since autumn of 2021, the names of 13,212 people appeared in similar ‘drugs investigations'
David too hastens to protect his visa and money. He transfers the EUR 9,000 that he had put in a Dutch bank account for his stay in Delft to a temporary ‘safe account’. Over the course of 24 hours, the police would observe any transactions from and to his bank account. Should no suspicious activities be spotted, the account would be released and the money returned. That was the promise.
Rahul and David’s stories sound like the plot of a crime series. Surely the chance that you accidentally become involved in this sort of activity is small. Isn’t it? Not really as since autumn of 2021, the names of 13,212 people appeared in similar ‘drugs investigations’.
After David transferred the money, the ‘legal employee’ tells him that he will shortly receive a detailed report of the case as well as a confirmation of the amount that he transferred to the ‘safe account’. He was also assured that the money would be returned within 24 hours if no suspicious activity is observed.
When David does not receive any mail after 15 minutes of ending the call, he starts to get suspicious. He dials the phone number of the Ministry of Justice and Security that appears in his received calls. He asks the civil servant who answers the phone to put him through to the staff member that he just spoke to. The civil servant tells David that no one with that name works at the Ministry and puts him through to the High Court where the legal employee claimed to work.
A random staff member at the High Court then explains that he is a victim of fraud. There is no investigation and David’s data are not known to the police or the Ministry of Justice. David is advised to immediately contact his bank and the police.
In the meantime, Rahul too discovers that he was never contacted by the Public Prosecution Service. After transferrring the money, he was asked to stay on the phone without hanging up for two hours. He did not believe it anymore, hung up and phoned the emergency number 112. After a few attempts, he finally gets a police officer on the phone who explains that he should phone his bank immediately. He does so, but it is already too late. Of the EUR 6,000 that he has transferred, he ultimately gets EUR 1,444 back after intense contact with the ABN Amro bank. David has lost all his savings.
David and Rahul were scammed. They are the victims of a type of telephone fraud that the FraudeHelpdesk website says is occurring more frequently. People are phoned by the ‘National Police’, the ‘Dutch Supreme Court’ (the Hoge Raad der Nederlanden) or the ‘Ministry of Justice’.
When the victim answers, they hear an English language recorded message and are connected to various ‘agents’ who often keep the victims on the phone for hours. The scammers put the victim under great pressure so that they bend and voluntarily transfer money or share data.
‘Be careful when filling in your details online’
As the phone number that the students see really is the number of the High Court in The Hague, David and Rahul were not suspicious at first. In reality this telephone number is spoofed. Spoofing literally means imitating or copying with the intention of taking on a temporary fake identity. A telephone number is easy for swindlers to imitate, and it looks like you really have been phoned by the organisation in question.
How the criminals got the telephone numbers of the students is guesswork. Rahul suspects that it had something to do with making a Marktplaats account. A visible telephone number was linked to the profile.
A spokesperson from the Haaglanden police said that criminals regularly use data that end up on the street from data leaks. “So always be careful when filling in your details,” warns the spokesperson. “Many sites these days ask for all your personal details while that it not always necessary.”
One million eurosData from the FraudeHelpdesk show that criminals have stolen more than EUR 1 million with this scam in just six months. One hundred and fifty one victims have lost an average of EUR 8,500 each.
Both TU Delft and the Delft police registered nine victims in the last six months. This does not mean that this is everyone affected, warns Patrick Sittrop, Safety and Security Project Manager. “Some students may be victims but either did not know or did not want to report it to us.”
Sittrop always advises victims to report incidents to TU Delft. “This helps us get a better picture of the scale of the problem so that we can take action such as preventive measures.” One example is the TU Delft website which warns against rental fraud.
ReportBoth Rahul and David reported the incidents to TU Delft. They also reported them to the police. The students handed over telephone numbers, bank account numbers and gave a detailed report of the events. Yet, the police did not investigate the matter further. “Given the large number of reports that we receive about online fraud, we need to consult the Public Prosecution Service and choose which cases we handle,” explains a spokesperson. He emphasises that it is still important to report incidents. “We can sometimes spot patterns in the information we receive, such as certain IP addresses. In some cases this later leads to identifying a suspect.”
‘Criminals are becoming ever more cunning and are coming across as more trustworthy'’
What makes the police investigation more complicated is that there is no clear profile of the perpetrator. What the police do see as a recent trend is an increase in the ‘cybercrime as a service’ phenomenon. “This involves technically strong cyber criminals selling on their services to less technical criminals.” The spokesperson explains that this is a worrying trend as it means that carrying out cyber crimes – such as telephone fraud – needs less technical knowledge.
The criminals’ target group is also changing. While it used to be mostly older people who were victims, the police are now seeing that the victims are becoming younger. “Criminals continually adapt their activities. They are becoming ever more cunning and are coming across as more trustworthy. Criminals may see international students as easier targets as they are less familiar with how the Dutch police work.” The police do not have the figures to support this theory. The number of students, international or otherwise, who report incidents is not registered.
Patrick Sittrop, Project Manager at the Safety and Security Department at TU Delft, thinks that this is the case too. “International students are often used to other means of communication. They may be more vulnerable to telephone contact, hierarchy and authority. If someone from the government in a high position says something, they may believe it more readily.”
PreventionThe awareness raising campaigns in the Netherlands are largely targeted at Dutch speakers, and this may not help, believes Sittrop.
‘International students view the Netherlands as a safe country where things are well organised’
TU Delft student Rahul insists that TU Delft should do more in the way of prevention. “You get introduced to various services like arranging a bank account and health insurance during the introduction week, so why are there no workshops about the different types of criminality, especially cyber crimes? International students view the Netherlands as a safe country where things are well organised. This is naive and it is thus even more important to draw attention to it.”
At central level, TU Delft does warn about rental fraud on its website, but not about other forms of fraud. It does happen at decentralised level though.
Getting money backIn both cases, the incident occured a couple of months ago. Rahul is assertive and is doing everything he can to get his money back. “It was my dream to study at TU Delft. I worked really hard for five years to save enough money so that I could use it and a loan from my father to pay for the tuition fees. If I don’t get my money back, my life will not look positive. I will not be able to pay the rent anymore or do shopping.”
To date he has received EUR 1,444 from the bank. By acting quickly – Rahul informed the bank within minutes of the incident – the bank was able to keep some of the money safe.
A complete reimbursement seems unlikely as the bank cannot reverse transactions. “Banks are required by law to carry out transactions,” explains Daan Heijbroek of ING. “Once a payment order is issued it cannot be undone.”
However, if there is a suspicion of fraud, action can be taken immediately. “If a client reports fraud or criminal activity, we take preventive measures immeditely to protect the client. This could involve blocking the debit card or internet banking. We also immediately send a message to the recipient’s bank to try and safeguard the money,” explains Heijbroek.
“This is not always possible though,” adds Guido Groot of the Rabobank. “Sometimes the fraudster has already withdrawn the amount in cash.”
TraumaticIt is not only the financial impact of fraud that is great. Both students suffer every day from the psychological effects. David says that “My study progress has been disrupted and I find it hard to trust anyone. I even stopped talking for a while at first. I am also having to make do with less and am trying to save the money that I have left. I am doing less shopping than I actually need as I feel guilty if I spend my remaining money.”
‘I feel unsafe all the time. My life will never be the same after this traumatic experience’
Rahul got help from the student psychologists, “but that support was limited to two sessions.” Given the long waiting lists for free care, his problems are piling up. The student is feeling paranoid. “Every time the phone rings or I look at a website, I have the feeling that I may be cheated. I no longer trust anyone and feel helpless and powerless.” Rahul had intended to finish his thesis in May so that he could save some money. “But now I don’t know if I am mentally strong enough to even start it let alone finish it. I feel unsafe all the time. My life will never be the same after this traumatic experience.”
How can you recognise fake telephone calls?
- If someone on the phone says that he/she is an employee at your bank or a company and asks for your personal details such as bank account numbers and login codes,
do not give any information. End the conversation and hang up. Check with the bank or company if they really did phone you. Do not use the telephone number that the caller gave you, but look up the number yourself.
- If the caller says that you have won a prize, your account is blocked or your settings for internet banking are not right, think critically and do not let yourself be intimidated or talked into anything. Never give your personal details to anyone just like that. If in doubt hang up and check with the bank or company if they really did phone you.
- If you receive a phone call from the customer service department of your internet provider, a software company or the manufacturer of computers, tablets or smartphones to solve hardware or software problems, be critical. Never give a stranger at the other end of the phone access to your devices and do not go to a website where you need to install software ‘to solve the problems’. If in doubt hang up and check with the internet provider, software company or the computer manufacturer if they really did phone you.
- Your bank and other institutions will never ask you to transfer money to another account, a ‘safe account’ or a ‘secure account’. These types of accounts do not even exist.
- The bank and other institutions will never pressure you into acting as quickly as possible.
- If a ‘supervisor’ takes over the phone call, be aware that this person too is a fraudster that is involved in the plot.
- If you are phoned by fraudsters, hang up immediately. Phone your bank and wait till someone answers your call. Then you can check if what you were told is right.
- For more tips and tricks look at the FraudeHelpdesk website.
The real names of Rahul and David are known to the Editorial Office.