An international employee at the University of Groningen was the target of an aggressive scam on Thursday afternoon. A person posing as an employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs threatened him with deportation, detention or a fine.
(This story has been updated on Friday, 9 March at 11:05 a.m. Updates are in bold.)
The man, who wishes 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.
According to Karen Prowse, operations manager at IWCN, the scammer apparently mirrored the phone number of the Dutch ministry – 070 348 6486 – causing the victim to take the threats seriously.
The caller claimed he had not submitted a DS-230 form, a form used by the U.S. Department of State to apply for an immigration visa or alien registration. He was instructed to go to his house and provide the caller with his passport number, his identification number in his home country and the number on his Dutch visa.
The victim says he had his doubts about the legitimacy of the call when he was told to transfer money to an account in Ukraine. But he says that he was so nervous about the threat of deportation that he followed their instructions. “My brain just closed down”, says the victim. “It was enough to scare a normal person.” The victim attempted to transfer the money via Western Union, but the transaction was refused by the company.
iTunes gift cards
The scammer kept him on the phone for the next two hours, telling him that he was under surveillance and instructing him not to speak to anyone or to use the internet. If he did, the caller said that he would be caught and charged. According to the victim, the caller would not even allow him to go to the bathroom while he was on the line.
When the money transfer failed, the caller told the victim to buy 1,600 euros’ worth of iTunes gift cards, write an apology letter to the ministry and then pay a 30 euro fine. The caller claimed that a police officer and a representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would come to his home to accept payment. The iTunes cards would be used as collateral until the matter could be resolved. The victim bought the cards, but that request was what finally convinced him that something was off about the phone call.
After the transaction failed, the man went to the International Welcome Center North at the municipality building on the Gedempte Zuiderdiep looking for help (Editorial note: The International Welcome Center is a partner of The Northern Times).
Prowse said that the staff was familiar with the victim because they had helped process his work visa for the university, so she was certain that there was nothing wrong with the man’s legal status. “The guy called him while he was here and when our client told him that he was at the municipality, asked to speak to the representative. I took the phone from him and told him, ‘How dare you! How dare you threaten people like this!” The scammer quickly hung up.
“This is not how the Dutch government operates”
Prowse then encouraged the man to go to the police station and file a report. Prowse is concerned that the scammer may be looking at the staff pages of the University of Groningen website and calling non-Dutch employees who may not realise they are being manipulated. In the hopes of sparing other employees, Prowse wants internationals to know that “this is not how the Dutch government operates.”
Conny Dokter, a staff member at the ISD, reported on Friday that the service desk was familiar with one other similar case in recent months, but emphasised that campaigns of this nature at not only directed at the north. The ISD posted a warning on its Facebook page on 12 February about phone calls allegedly from the Ministry of Justice and Security inquiring about a person’s alien registration number. Dokter says that this type of scam has been occurring nationwide and that any reports the ISD receives are forwarded to the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND).
A spokesperson for the police force in the Northern Netherlands said that she was not immediately familiar with any other cases but would review recently submitted reports. Jorien Bakker, a spokesperson for the University of Groningen, says that the university wants to ensure that all of its employees feel safe. “We don’t want this sort of thing happening to anyone, this is worrying.”
While this particular phone scam seems to be something new, a number of international residents of Groningen have fallen victim to housing scams in recent years. Scammers are active on many Facebook groups, posting listings for rooms that either do not exist or are not available and demanding would-be tenants transfer a deposit for the room sight unseen.
After the victim learned that it was a scam, he attempted to return the iTunes gift cards to the Albert Heijn location where he bought them, but he says that the grocery store refused to take them back.