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Foreign students easy prey for Stockholm rental scams

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Foreign students easy prey for Stockholm rental scams
09:56 CEST+02:00
With no end in sight to the shortage of student housing in Stockholm, foreign students should be on the lookout for scam artists hoping to capitalise on their desperation, contributor Anita Badejo discovers.

In the spring of 2010, Germany native Lars Lückoff thought he'd be spending the first half of 2011 in Sweden as an exchange student at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm.

Instead, the third-year chemical engineering student is back studying at the university in Bath, England, with 7,000 kronor ($1,140) missing from his bank account.

“I've kind of tried to forget about it at this point,” Lückoff tells The Local, reflecting on the ordeal.

Like many other students, whether from Sweden or abroad, Lückoff found himself the unfortunate target of an elaborate apartment rental scam.

Back in late 2009, Lückoff received permission from his university to carry out a research project in Stockholm and had planned to spend the spring 2011 term in the Swedish capital.

When he started looking into accommodation shortly thereafter, Lückoff assumed he'd have plenty of time to sort things out before the start of his programme.

Officials at KTH referred Lückoff to several websites and organisations that cater to the needs of students seeking a place to live in Stockholm.

He eventually placed himself on the waiting list for Stiftelsen Stockholms Studentbostäder (SSSB), the student housing foundation that owns many of the student apartments in the Stockholm area.

What Lückoff didn't realise at the time was that simply joining the agency's queue doesn't necessarily help a student's chances of securing a student apartment.

“There are 80,000 students in Stockholm and altogether there are 13,000 student apartments,” SSSB's Anders Cronqvist explains, adding that the agency has a waiting list of 60,000 people for the 8,000 flats it owns in and around Stockholm.

Months into his search and with time running out, Lückoff posted an advertisement on an online message forum in December 2010.

While many replies seemed suspicious, one response nevertheless caught Lückoff's eye.

A young woman was offering an apartment on Södermalmsgatan – located on the hip and student-friendly island of Södermalm – for 3,000 kronor ($470) per month including utilities.

According to her Facebook profile, the woman was indeed a resident of Stockholm and took the trouble to provide proof of address and photocopies of her ID in exchange for those of Lückoff.

She also sent pictures of the apartment.

“It looked really student-y, but not too over-the-top,” Lückoff says.

“It seemed possible to trust it, or at least I trusted [it].”

Within a couple of weeks, an elated Lückoff transferred a 4,000 kronor deposit plus the first month's rent to a Turkish bank account he was led to believe belonged to the woman's lawyer.

As similar arrangements are common in his native Germany, Lückoff didn't think anything seemed out of the ordinary.

A short time later, however, Lückoff heard from family friends in Sweden about reports detailing the troubles facing students looking for apartments in Stockholm.

“That's when we started to have a closer look at things,” Lückoff says.

Additional research revealed – much to Lückoff's horror – that the “student-y” Södermalm apartment he thought he'd be moving to was nothing but a Salvation Army building, impossible to rent out for residents.

“We found out that it was a scam…on the first of January…yeah, that was a happy New Year," he recalls bitterly.

As Lückoff posed more questions to the woman renting him the apartment, she responded with additional her demands – first asking for the second month's rent, ultimately demanding he pay the entire semester's rent before coming to Sweden.

Lückoff tried in vain to enlist the help of German authorities and contact the Turkish bank but little could be done.

After spending two straight weeks working to remedy the situation, Lückoff finally gave up.

“I couldn't find any accommodation [in Stockholm]...I didn't have anywhere to stay and I really needed to concentrate on my exams, so I decided to stay at home,” he explains.

According to Rolf Åkerström of the Stockholm County Police Fraud Unit, Lückoff is not the only house-hunting student to be conned by apartment rental scams.

“Usually it is students who do not reside in Stockholm and are facing an acute housing emergency,” Åkerström says.

"The start of the term is open season for scammers."

Earlier this year, charges were filed against a criminal gang who managed to defraud dozens of Swedish students of hundreds of thousands of kronor using phony apartments ads published on the popular buy-sell website Blocket.se.

However, no precise figures exist regarding the number of victims of student housing scams, and according to Åkerström, there are likely a large number of unreported cases because they are less likely to go to Swedish authorities due to language barriers, unfamiliarity with Swedish law, and other reasons.

Nevertheless, the lack of student housing in Stockholm shows no signs of abating any time soon, according to SSSB's Cronqvist.

For starters, the system is still coping with a demographic boom of people born in the late 1980s and early 1990s which has resulted in a flood of students in the twenties, many of whom need housing.

In addition, the difficulty of breaking into the Swedish labour market has compelled a number of young adults to focus their energy on gaining a university education rather than finding a job, he explains.

Finally, there has been a major increase in the number of international students attending Swedish universities.

At SSSB, for example, one quarter of the tenants are international students.

“It's very high pressure now,” says Cronqvist of the situation.

And as the pressure rises, so will the desperation of thousands of students who attempt to find housing in Stockholm year after year, making them easy targets for the type of scam that trapped Lückoff.

While police continue to investigate student housing scams, Åkerström explains that fraudsters' creativity keeps police on their toes.

“New approaches come up all the time," he says.

"It's only the imagination of the scammer that sets the limits for fraud."

The police recommend that would-be tenants be sure to see an apartment in person to make sure it really exists.

In addition to confirming the identity of the person offering the flat, potential renters should also ask to him or her to show their name on the lease.

It's also worthwhile to check with the landlord or housing association to make sure the apartment is actually available for rent.

And according to Åkerström, if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.

"One should be wary of apartments in attractive, central addresses that aren't exceptionally expensive," he warns.

"The acute housing shortage in central Stockholm means that there basically aren't any cheap or reasonably priced apartments for rent."

In addition cautions Åkerström, "never pay rent in advance".

Looking back, Lückoff realises he was likely led into a false sense of security by the official looking ID documents sent by the scam artist and didn't take the time to confirm her identity.

“I'd never spoken to the person. That was my mistake,” he says.

Being a foreigner who wasn't based in Stockholm also made Lückoff an easier target.

“People from Sweden, they could just pop by to see what [the flat] is like, but on the internet you kind of need to trust people a bit,” he says.

Lückoff hopes his ordeal will help raise awareness among other foreign students looking to come to Stockholm to be alert to possible housing scams.

"Just be really cautious," he warns.

"Question an offer twice before just accepting it."

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