Another international researcher has been targeted by a scam perpetrated by someone posing as an employee of Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The postdoc was threatened with deportation if he did not pay thousands of euros.
Manas Das, a postdoc from India working at the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University of Groningen, is still shaken by his experience over the past few days. “I took out all my money because I thought it was a threat to my family. I’m living here with a small kid and my wife”, he says. The money, in the form of Steam gift cards, was given to someone claiming to be from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs who told Das there was a warrant out for his arrest and that he had to pay thousands of euros to avoid being deported.
Das checked the phone number displayed on his cell phone calling him on Wednesday morning and confirmed that it matched the one on the ministry’s website. The caller told him to take the phone call somewhere no one else could hear them, and to turn off his wifi. The scammer, whom Das says sounded like a fluent English speaker, had good Dutch pronunciation skills: when he provided his street address, the caller said it back to him in perfect-sounding Dutch.
The credibility of the phone number and the caller led Das to believe what he was being told, namely that he and his family faced being deported within 24 hours because his alien registration number had been filed incorrectly. Das told the caller that the Immigration Service Desk at the university had prepared all of his paperwork and that he had never heard of the alien registration number, but the caller said “that’s your problem.”
After being told to bike home, Das provided the caller with every form of legal ID he had, reportedly for a background check by the Dutch embassy in India. The caller told Das he had three options: he, his wife and child either had to leave country within 24 hours and receive a red mark in their passports banning them from returning to the Netherlands; be sent to a detention centre in Amsterdam for six days until his background check came back clean; or pay 2,900 euros in a security deposit and court fee. The fees were to be paid in gift cards for Steam, an online gaming platform. Das scrambled around town until he found the cards and then scratched them off one by one, reading out the numbers on the back to the scammer until he had 2,900 euros’ worth of cards.
This modus operandi is identical to another scam which targeted another Indian researcher in Groningen earlier this year. The man, who asked to remain anonymous, received a call on his work phone from someone claiming to be from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The caller stated that the man’s alien registration was invalid and presented him with three options: deportation, being detained for 15 days, or paying a 1,600 euro fine in iTunes gift cards.
Das has an appointment with the Groningen police on Monday to file a formal complaint, and has been trying to reach the International Service Desk since Wednesday by telephone. The Northern Times has also reached out to the ISD for comment. In February, the ISD shared a warning on their Facebook page that anyone calling from the Ministry of Justice and Security asking for an alien registration number was a scam.
Jorien Bakker, a spokesperson for the University of Groningen, says, ”it’s really terrible that this has happened. We don’t want any of our employees to be put through something like this.” Bakker says it is a good thing that Das is going to the police, and the more details that are made available, the easier it will be for the university to issue another warning to staff about how to recognise these kinds of scams. “I don’t know if it’s something that we can prevent, but we’ll do what we can to provide more information to our employees.”
“I don’t want anyone else to be in my situation”
The strain of being blackmailed has left Das unable to concentrate on his work at the Stratingh Institute for Chemistry, much less eat or sleep. On Friday, Das went into the International Welcome Center North to tell them about what had happened to him, at his wife’s urging. “My mental state was very bad, and she said, ‘this is just money. At least we’re all alive, so forget about this. This is just a bad thing.’ She said we should inform everyone, all the authorities, and maybe they can help us get something back. I want people to know about these things because I don’t want anyone else to be in my situation.”
A similar scam involving phone numbers mirroring legitimate Dutch government agencies and demanding proof of alien registration has been reported by foreign professionals, a number of whom are from India, across the Netherlands over the past year. DutchNews.nl reports that comparable scams have also been active in Dubai, Singapore and Canada.