Delta’s regular contributor, master student Vishal Onkhar, spoke to one of the victims. Here is a reconstruction of how conmen targeted a vulnerable international student by threatening him with consequences like deportation and jail time on the pretext that he was in an illegal living situation.
Imprisonment and deportation
By instilling a sense of fear, scammers will convince panicked students that the problem can be resolved if the latter pay exorbitant amounts of money like EUR 1500 or EUR 3000 via iTunes gift cards or crypto currency. They will also threaten students into staying silent lest the consequences grow even more severe. Once the money has been transferred, the scammers immediately redeem it, and all funds are lost without a trace.
As one victim put it, “It all started when I received a call from an unknown number. A man with a slight Dutch accent spoke to me in English and informed me that he was an official calling from the Justice and Security Department of the Netherlands. He knew my name and, evidently, my phone number as well! He told me that I had been staying illegally at my current residence because I had failed to fill out an alien registration form when applying for my residence permit, and that this was a crime punishable by imprisonment followed by deportation. I was shocked to hear this, but since my residence permit application was such a long time ago, I didn’t really remember what I had filled out, and so I believed him. The man then told me that the situation could still be remedied but only if I acted fast and applied for bail. He instructed me to purchase an iTunes gift card and load it with EUR 3000. I felt like fainting when I heard the amount, but he said that it was either that or spend one week in jail, or go back to my home country with a red mark on my passport which would prevent me from applying for a visa for another year.
‘I could not tell anybody, including my family and friends’
“When I asked him why I had to pay so much money, he informed me that since I had already lived for almost two years in the Netherlands, the fine had accumulated. I also asked him why he chose such an unusual method of payment to which he replied that it was the fastest and that there was almost no time left. He even told me that since this was highly sensitive information, I could not tell anybody, including my family and friends, or else I could face up to an additional 96 hours in prison. He also asked me to follow certain ‘security protocols’ like switching off WiFi and mobile data on my devices. He gave me no space to breathe and stayed on the line until I had prepared the money.”
The victim said he could not believe what he had just heard. He said he grew suspicious immediately and tried to trace the identity of the caller. To his utter surprise, however, the phone number was indeed the number of the Ministry of Justice and Security as listed on their website. It was at this moment that he let his guard down. Convinced that the caller’s identity was genuine, he purchased the iTunes gift card as instructed. “He asked me to read out the numbers on the back of the gift card, which I did,” the victim said, “He assured me that the money would be returned by cheque by the officers who would come to meet me, and noted down my passport details and BSN. It was only later when I told my friends about this strange incident that I realised that I had been duped,” he admitted. The entire incident took place over four hours during which the scammers put constant pressure on the victim and kept track of his activities.
By the time the crime was discovered, however, it was too late because the gift card had already been used, and neither the police nor Apple support could offer any solution. The number was untraceable because it appeared as the Ministry of Justice and Security’s number and since the victim himself had purchased the iTunes gift card, it was not possible to say who had redeemed it. The victim’s insurance company said that since this was not a theft but a scam, they didn’t provide coverage and could not be of any assistance.
Reports on several websites indicate that mostly foreign students from South Asian countries are being targeted. A spokesperson of TU Delft says no notifications have been received regarding this matter. However, the cyber criminals may still be at large, and more attempts may be expected in the coming weeks.
TU students and staff are hereby encouraged to be extra careful and to never entertain such calls from scammers. If you are unsure whether or not you are dealing with criminals, make sure to follow these guidelines.
- Don’t reveal personal details
Never give out personal or financial information (such as your bank account details or your PIN) over the phone, even if the caller claims to be from your bank. Real government officials who call will never ask for money or personal details but only verify what they already know.
- Hang up
If you feel harassed or intimidated, or if the caller talks over you without giving you a chance to speak, end the call. It may feel rude to hang up on someone, but you have the right not to be pressured into anything.
- Ring the organisation
If you're unsure whether the caller is genuine, you can always ring the company or bank they claim to be from. Make sure you find the number yourself and don’t use the one provided by the caller. In this case, the number appeared to be genuine, but scammers have multiple techniques to manipulate these numbers. When in doubt, please seek help from a friend, the IND office, the police or your embassy.
- Don’t be rushed
Scammers will try to rush you into providing your personal details. They may say they have a time-limited offer or claim your bank account is at risk if you don't give them the information they need right away.
- Payment method
Any callers who want to be paid with gift cards or cryptocurrency are scammers. Payment methods like these are used because they can easily collect the money and disappear without a trace.
Written by Vishal Onkhar with additions by Marjolein van der Veldt