How to avoid fraud in the Stockholm house-hunt
Published: 24 Aug 2012 16:02 GMT+02:00
Updated: 24 Aug 2012 16:02 GMT+02:00
With apartments in Stockholm harder than ever to find, desperate house-hunters are easy prey for con-artists. The Local’s Oliver Gee finds out more about how the fraudsters operate and how to avoid them.
Experts labelled the Stockholm housing crisis in August as worse than ever before, and according to the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce there is a shortage of 73,000 homes in the Stockholm region.
Foreigners and Swedes alike have been fighting one another to claim their own space in Sweden’s capital, and the situation is particularly critical among students, not least at this time of year as new courses begin.
People are getting desperate, and this is where the con-artists feed, luring people into believing they’re getting an offer that’s too good to be true.
I found myself in the same situation recently. While surfing Blocket.se, the Swedish buy-sell website, I came across an advert that spoke my language (quite literally, it was in English).
I responded immediately and the seller told me to call a Skype account with a name that reeked of falsehood.
When I rang, a woman explained how she was happy to rent me her fifth floor apartment which was “conveniently close” to a Stockholm university. But, she was in Aberdeen, Scotland, so a meeting or a house inspection would be impossible, she said.
Even though alarms were ringing, and her Scottish accent was worse than Mel Gibson’s in Braveheart, I pushed on, eager to see where the fishiness would lead.
But as more and more unbelievable details emerged about how she acquired an apartment in Stockholm, and why she was renting it out, I lost interest.
Furthermore, a quick Google-maps check of “her” apartment showed that there wasn’t a fifth floor at all, and that windows in her pictures didn’t match the ones of the building. I ended the conversation with a thanks, but no thanks.
However, there was no actual proof that the woman was lying, so I asked my girlfriend to go through the routine too, in the guise of a potential exchange student from the UK.
“Where in the UK are you?” the woman asked somewhat cautiously, to which my girlfriend replied: Edinburgh.
On hearing this, the woman paused, then said she was from Liverpool, and assured my girlfriend that she “was a completely trustworthy woman and would never lie to anyone” and could my girlfriend please transfer the rent without asking so many questions if she wouldn’t mind very much.
With this, I confronted the fraudster, and after a time she confessed to being in Egypt. Foiled, the woman made a last ditch attempt to enlist me as her Swedish sidekick in the scamming process before I broke off the conversation.
Sure, sounds like a typical scam, but not every trap is so easy to avoid. An acquaintance of mine, a 23-year-old university student from Uppsala called Frej*, wasn’t so lucky.
“I lost 15,000 kronor ($2,250) to a con-artist. For a student, that’s a lot of money… especially when you know you won’t get it back,” he said.
Frej explained that his trap was more complicated. The fraudster stole the identity of a Swedish person, posted the address of a real apartment on Blocket, and asked Frej to transfer the money online via money transfer service Internetgirot.se.
Incidentally, this - entirely legitimate - website exists to reduce the risk of fraud when paying or receiving a payment in advance.
“The man told me that the money wouldn’t go through until we both confirmed it. When it was time to confirm, I got a message which I thought was from the service and I transferred the money.”
However the message said that the company was having “technical problems”, and asked if the money could be transferred to a separate bank account.
Believing the contents of the message, Frej transferred the money, but never heard from the "landlord" again.
“Afterwards I called the Nordea bank where I'd sent the money and when I told them the man's name they said ‘Oh God, he is a scammer, call the police, call the bank!’ He had apparently done the same trick recently,” the student explained.
“I had an anxiety attack – I freaked out. The man had a Swedish name and was speaking Swedish… I'd heard of scammers from abroad but not from here in Sweden. I didn’t realize the lengths they go to in order to trick people.”
As it turned out, the scammer had sent him a fabricated email (also known as a spoof email) from the InternetGirot website, which looked exactly the same as their normal messages.
“I had actually done a lot of background checks on the guy. I just shouldn’t have sent the money to another account – I later learnt that the money transfer service would never send out such an email,” Frej explained.
Carl-Henrik Somp, the PR manager of the Trustly Group that owns InternetGirot, explains that these spoof emails happen “every now and then”.
“It’s a real shame for the people affected - the fraudsters push desperate people into making snap decisions in a market where competition is high,” he told The Local.
“The most important thing we can stress is that people should never transfer to an account that’s not ours - the correct information is stated on our website - no matter what fraudsters claim. Don’t ever click any links in emails and always type in our address manually - internetgirot.se - otherwise you can be stung by fraudsters.”
“Our site explains very clearly at the top of the homepage that money should only ever be transferred to our bank giro account. We are not involved in any other account number, no matter what you may be told.”
While the company does assist victims in filing a police report, Somp explains that once money has passed hands it can be tricky to ever see it again.
“Often the con artists will transfer it further to a second, third, fourth bank account. It’s easy for the police to trace the first bank account, but it is harder to get the money back since its often transferred to another account.”
Frej, meanwhile, still hasn’t got his money back, after long waits with what he referred to as “unhelpful” police and bank staff members who were “lacking initiative”. The police even had a suspect, according to Frej, but refused to release the man's real identity.
“The worst thing is the feeling of betrayal,” he said.
So how can someone be sure that they’re not getting fooled?
Jarl Jönsson, an advisor at the Swedish Tenants' Association (Hyresgästföreningen), explains that the key is to be extremely thorough, no matter how desperate you are.
“Always go to the house and be sure there is an apartment there to begin with. While you’re there, check if the owner of the building’s name is in the lobby, it’s a good idea to call them and be sure the would-be landlord has permission to rent it,” he told The Local.
“And before you give any money, also be sure to actually talk to the landlord.”
Jönsson warns that the fraudsters are most active at the start of university semesters.
“This time of year is the worst, the school term starts and many people are on the move. You’ve got to be careful and even if you’re desperate – never give money when someone asks until you’re completely certain it’s a legitimate deal."
Meanwhile Frej, while admitting he was perhaps not careful enough, acknowledges that it was his desperation that eventually separated him from his money.
“It’s true that it’s also partly my fault, but you can help being desperate in this city,” he said.
“I sent hundreds of emails, got three responses, and two of them were saying no. When I saw the one chance I got I jumped for it. I was so grateful for the opportunity that I didn't think twice,” he told The Local.
“It’s a mistake I definitely won’t make again, but a truly expensive lesson to learn.”
*Frej is not the real name of the student who was conned.