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HOUSING

Foreigners’ identities stolen in housing scam

Fraudsters are finding new ways to trick house-hunters in Sweden, stealing the identities of real people in other countries to convince desperate would-be tenants to part with their money.

Foreigners' identities stolen in housing scam

“I’ve got no connection with Sweden at all, I don’t know how my name got involved in this,” Dr David Ramsdale, a cardiologist from Liverpool in Britain, told The Local.

Ramsdale’s name and photo were taken from the website of his hospital two weeks ago by a scammer preying on eager house-hunters in the west of Sweden.

His identity was then posted on a Swedish buy-sell site, together with a link to images of an apartment’s interior. Subsequent emails to interested Swedes explained that Ramsdale owned the flat but was unable to come to Sweden for a meeting.

However, if a 4,500 kronor ($675) deposit could be paid to him in the UK, he could send over the keys, according to the email.

“I had seven or eight emails from Swedes who were bright enough to do a background check. They all said that there had been other scams and they were just making sure,” he explained.

“I felt really bad for them. I emailed back, but there was nothing I could do for anyone else who saw the ad.”

While Ramsdale was concerned about the plight of house-hunters in Sweden, he was also worried about the theft of his own identity, and contacted UK police.

“The police said that no crime had been committed and that they couldn’t do anything unless I could prove that someone had made money from my name. I can’t prove it, I have no idea,” he said.

“I’m worried people might think it’s actually me and I feel helpless. The most useful thing I could do was respond to the emails.”

With thousands of students, expats and jobseekers looking for housing nationwide, coupled with a chronic shortage of rental apartments in Sweden’s main cities, more and more people are falling victim to similar scams.

Fifteen people were stung in a mass housing fraud in Stockholm on Monday, according to the Aftonbladet newspaper, where each of the house-hunters lost an “advance rent payment” of 5,500 kronor after responding to an ad on Blocket.se, a Swedish buy-sell website.

The “home-owner” had told them she needed the money to ensure that her trip across the country from Gothenburg wasn’t going to be a waste of her time.

But it wasn’t until all 15 people showed up to pick up a set of non-existent keys they realized they had been duped.

Meanwhile, Ramsdale’s stolen identity case is not the first time scammers have used a foreign professional’s title to lend credence to their offer.

A person claiming to be a neuro-oncology doctor from London, David S Wilson, has become notorious on house-hunting websites for a scam of his own making.

When The Local requested more information about Wilson’s flat, a reply in bad English (see verbatim email below) described in detail how it was furnished, the parking facilities and even the pictures on the wall:

“i bought this apartment for my son during he’s studies, but now he’s back home in London UK permanently, so i’m renting the place for unlimited time,” the email stated. It ended by requesting our name and contact details followed by a request for a “security deposit” of 5,000 kronor.

According to information on anti-fraud website Scamwarner.com, the same email has been used to try to defraud people as far away as Finland and Belgium.

So how can someone be sure they’re not getting fooled?

Jarl Jönsson, an advisor at the Swedish Tenants’ Association (Hyresgästföreningen), explained 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 whether the building owner’s name is posted on a notice 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 in August.

“And before you hand over any money, also be sure to actually talk to the landlord.”

While Ramsdale no longer receives emails about the apartment, he has since discovered that a colleague had been hit by a similar Swedish scam, and reported the matter to Swedish police but to no avail.

Claiming that authorities are “uninterested unless someone is killed”, Ramsdale expects that the trend can only continue in the same direction.

“Someone is suffering somewhere and it’s terrible. But even if they sort it out in Sweden, the con artists will probably just move on,” he told The Local.

“All I can say is that I would never give away my money like that. People shouldn’t give anyone money until they’ve at least seen a property.”

Oliver Gee

Follow Oliver on Twitter here

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden’s ‘historic investment’ has failed to solve the housing crisis

Five years after Sweden's government promised to solve the country's housing crisis with a "historic investment", things are as bad as ever, David Crouch argues. Radical action is needed.

OPINION: Sweden's 'historic investment' has failed to solve the housing crisis

Forced to move house 20 times in the past eight years, Maria’s situation was desperate. She and her daughter had arrived in Stockholm from Latin America in search of a better life. She found work, no problem – but housing was impossible.

“Sometimes I was paying 12,000kr in rent and it was very hard because I only had 15,000kr in monthly salary,” says Maria (not her real name). So she took a high-interest loan of 240,000kr and tried to bribe someone in the Housing Agency to get to the front of the queue for affordable housing.

But she was caught. Her fate is unknown. And she didn’t even get an apartment.

This recent story, in the excellent newspaper of the Tenants’ Association, sums up the problems facing people who move here to work. The market for rental accommodation is tight as a drum. Finding a home means competing with Swedes, but with all the disadvantages of being an outsider. So people find themselves pushed into short-term, insecure rental contracts at inflated prices.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Five years ago this month, the government announced a “historic investment in housing”, including subsidies for construction companies, easing restrictions on building permits, and making more land available.

The housing situation at the time was grim. Spotify had threatened to leave Sweden if things didn’t improve – how could the company attract skilled young people to a city where there was nowhere for them to live? More than half Stockholm’s population – 600,000 people – were in the queue for a coveted rental apartment, because strict regulation meant these rents were low. But it took as long as 20 years to get to the front of that queue.

The result was a thriving rental property black market, with large bribes changing hands. Many tenants exploited the situation by sub-letting their homes, or parts of them. “It is almost impossible for immigrants and new arrivals to penetrate this market – it is all about who you know and how much money you have,” said Billy McCormac, head of the Fastighetsägarna property association, in 2015.

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So what has been the outcome of the grand promises the government made five years ago? House-building at the time was already rising steadily, and it has continued to do so. Look around you in the big cities and you will see that new apartment blocks have sprung up here and there.

But we shouldn’t go only on appearances. To understand the reality, we need to look at some numbers.

The gap between demand for housing and the existing housing stock has indeed started to shrink. “As housing construction has gradually increased and population growth has begun to slow down, the gap has decreased since 2017,” Stockholm’s Housing Agency noted in December.

The Agency has broken records four years in a row for the number of rental homes it has provided. The proportion of young adults living independently has also increased somewhat, the Tenants’ Association found, probably due to the pace of construction.

But this smidgen of good news is outweighed by an avalanche of bad.

The average queuing time in 2021 for a Stockholm apartment was more than 9 years; for somewhere in the city centre you have to wait 18 years. Only 936 homes came with a waiting time of less than one year. More than three-quarters of a million people are now registered in the queue for housing – a big increase on five years ago.

The rate at which the housing shortage is shrinking is nowhere near fast enough to alleviate the huge accumulated demand.

Assuming that the current pace of construction can be maintained, it will be the end of this decade before any significant dent is made in the deficit of homes, according to Boverket – the Swedish National Board of Housing, Building and Planning. The current rate of construction is “only marginally more than the long-term need”, it says.

The challenge is even greater when it comes to producing affordable housing, Boverket says, especially for the young and those entering the housing market for the first time. Almost one in four young Swedes up to the age of 27 are forced to live at home – the second-highest figure since the measurements began.

There are already signs that housing construction is actually slowing down, owing to higher building material prices, rising interest rates and an incipient labour shortage. Construction prices rose by more than 8 percent last year, and there is concern in the industry that war in Ukraine will further affect costs, in turn slowing the pace of building.

There is another fly in the ointment, a consequence of the collapse of Sweden’s governing coalition in November. The new, minority administration was forced to adopt the opposition’s budget, which halted investment subsidies for house building, throwing the construction industry into confusion.

In short, the “Swedish model” for providing people with a roof over their heads is failing. The folkhemmet, or “people’s home”, has not enough homes for its people.

Swedes themselves understand this: in a survey last month, nine out of ten voters said they thought that politicians did not take the housing shortage seriously.

We have waited too long. It is time for fresh thinking and radical action to solve the housing crisis.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University

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