Students at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig (symbol picture)
Dan McCarthy has 34 euros in his checking account.
The 27-year-old American logs into his online banking account several times a day.
But there is simply no new money coming in.
The law student had to borrow the sum for the July rent of his small apartment in Kiel from his German girlfriend.
Dan McCarthy actually has money: More than 8,000 euros are in a blocked account at a large German bank in Wiesbaden.
Only McCarthy can't get there.
If you come from a non-EU country and want to study in Germany, you need a lot of money, as the German state wants.
Prospective students have to raise at least 861 euros for each month they want to stay in Germany.
They have to deposit the money in a blocked account before entering the country if they cannot prove other sources of funding such as a scholarship.
With this regulation, the government wants to prevent the young people from lying on the taxpayer's pocket during their studies.
Every month, 861 euros are to be paid out.
The bank pays out € 861 per month to the young people from this blocked account.
The sum corresponds to the maximum student loan rate in Germany - an amount that the legislature has calculated for a student as the monthly cost of living.
Only in July this money did not reach a number of students.
The Federal Foreign Office lists half a dozen companies on its website that offer such blocked accounts, including large financial institutions such as Deutsche Bank - but also small financial service providers who open these accounts on behalf of the students at a partner bank.
Until recently, a company named "BAM - Nationwide Plant Management UG" stood here, prominently in the first place.
Customer service in a conversational tone
The company offered the students a pretty good deal: an all-round carefree package for a lump sum of 60 euros for a blocked account at Aareal Bank in Wiesbaden - a financial institution that actually specializes in real estate financing.
For comparison: At Deutsche Bank, the same service costs 150 euros to set up the lock on the account and just under seven more euros for each month in which the account is used.
McCarthy law student in Kiel
What also spoke for the provider: While other companies have to fill out pages of paper and send them across the country by post, prospective students can open the account online at BAM. Within a few days, the applicant received the certificate of the amount paid, which is absolutely necessary for a visa application. The e-mails from BAM customer service are in a friendly, conversational tone, and the sender is an unnamed "Lisa". "It didn't seem strange to me at all," McCarthy says. After all, in the USA it is customary for everyone to address each other by first name. "I thought it was great how easy and unbureaucratic it was."
In April he paid 10,492 euros into his blocked account via BAM - a lot of money for a young person.
Dan McCarthy borrowed it from his mother before traveling from Cleveland, Ohio to Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein.
He came across the list of providers on the website of the Foreign Office.
"If the German Foreign Ministry recommends the offer, it will be good," he thought and opened a blocked account via BAM - like around 700 other students from all over the world who wanted to complete one or more semesters in Germany.
"I trusted the German state," says McCarthy, "and now I have to be afraid that I won't see my money again."
Because BAM has apparently not paid a cent to students since the end of June, as many of those affected report unanimously.
The website, a simple modular website in broadcast-with-the-mouse-orange, is no longer accessible.
Anyone who calls the mobile phone number that appears as the contact number in the official BAM correspondence ends up in a mailbox.
The financial services provider, it seems, has disappeared.
No mailbox or doorbell bears the company's name
The commercial register has a business address for BAM in a hip backyard office building in Hamburg's old town.
But neither a mailbox nor a doorbell indicate that a company called BAM Nationwide Plant Management resides here.
Employees from other companies in the same company react in astonishment.
No, such a company never existed here, they say.
The name of the managing director, a woman named Levke Marie Derns according to the entry in the commercial register, is nowhere to be found there.
In the imprint of the BAM website, which is now offline, the manager has a different surname.
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A few days ago, an automated reply was sent to the email address of BAM customer service: BAM is currently struggling with technical difficulties.
Customers should contact Aareal Bank in Wiesbaden directly.
Anyone who did this was in turn referred to BAM's customer service.
"Aareal Bank does not have any accounts in which the students themselves are account holders," said Christian Feldbrügge, Aareal Bank's press spokesman, when asked.
His bank is not allowed to make transfers without the account holder or trustee initiating payments.
However, "the responsible authorities have been informed," says Feldbrügge. A solution is being actively sought to enable the fiduciary assets in the account to be paid out to those entitled. In addition, measures to secure the trust funds have already been carried out. "
In plain language this means: BAM, not the students themselves, is the bank's customer. Therefore, only the financial service provider can initiate payments. The BAM did not have the necessary authorization under banking law - which is why the Bafin banking supervisory authority stepped in this week and ordered the "immediate cessation of the unauthorized deposit business". "The company offered students coming to Germany so-called blocked accounts in accordance with the Residence Act," said a statement from the Bafin. “However, these were illegally not opened in favor of the respective students in their names. Rather, the company collected the funds in its own account. "
The Federal Foreign Office has since removed the link from its website and comments on this process to SPIEGEL as follows: The list is "not linked to a banking check and is not a recommendation for or against individual providers for reasons of competition."
180 affected people have gathered in a Telegram group
So far there is no information on whether, when and how the students will get their money back.
More than 180 affected people have come together in a Telegram group.
They come from Lebanon, Senegal, the USA and South Korea.
Some borrowed the money from parents or relatives, others took out a loan at home in order to offer the German state financial security - which they now have to service month after month.
Most of them are angry and quite nervous.
Landlords wait for their rent payments, health insurances for their contributions - and all of this in a foreign country, whose language many are only just beginning to learn.
In an Excel spreadsheet, the students listed how much money each individual had deposited and how much money still had to be in the blocked accounts: On Thursday morning, the outstanding amounts totaled more than 800,000 euros, for the members of the chat group alone.
More than three million euros
But it is very likely that far more students are affected: A letter from Aareal Bank, which SPIEGEL has received, shows that more than three million euros were in the BAM account at Aareal Bank in mid-May.
"I feel so helpless," says Presley Prieto, who comes from California and is taking a German course in Berlin. "All my savings are in this blocked account." In order to be able to buy something to eat, she had to borrow money from acquaintances. "It's incredibly humiliating." She often lies awake for hours at night. "I have no idea how to proceed."
Like most of her fellow campaigners, Prieto has now filed a criminal complaint.
However, some students were sent home by uncomprehending police officers trying to do just that.
Gabrielly Oliveira is exactly what happened.
The Brazilian worked in a marketing agency in her home country for a year in order to be able to fulfill a dream: A master’s degree in Media and Communication Science in Ilmenau, Thuringia.
From the salary of her first job, she saved every real thing in order to be able to buy the ticket to Germany.
“I never thought something like this would happen to me here.
This is Germany here, where everything is lawful and orderly, ”she complains.
"How could I be so mistaken?"
When the July tranche of her blocked account assets were not paid out, Oliveira, on the advice of her German friends, went to the nearest police station to report the incident.
"The officers didn't even know what to do with me," said the 24-year-old on the phone.
"You didn't know what a blocked account was." The consumer advice center she went to afterwards advised her to get a lawyer.
"I haven't dared to do that before," says Oliveira.
A lawyer is certainly expensive.
"I'm worried that I won't be taken seriously again - and I'm also embarrassed that I seem to have been cheated."
Have the students been the victims of a fraud?
But is it really like that?
Have Oliveira, McCarthy, Prieto and all the others become victims of a fraudster who, on the alleged recommendation of the German Foreign Office, wanted to deprive hundreds of students of their savings?
Levke Derns, the managing director of BAM, is a slim, pale person.
With her old-fashioned glasses and worn out sneakers, the 32-year-old doesn't look like a cold-blooded cheat.
You can meet her after an initial telephone contact, just not in her office in Hamburg's old town, she says in advance on the phone.
That is "just a little unfavorable".
Derns tells the story of a simple business idea that got out of hand at some point.
She looks as if she has not really understood the scope of her actions.
She used to work in a company that rented out furnished dormitory rooms to foreign students. In doing so, she noticed how complicated and expensive it could be to set up a blocked account. She said she wanted to do better.
"I'm a pragmatic person and thought I'd just try this," she says.
In January 2020 she founded BAM - Bundesweites Anlagenmanagement UG.
"I was amazed how easy it was." Her friend came up with the name.
"BAM, that sounds like 'Bäm' - I liked that somehow." Looking for a bank where BAM could open blocked accounts, she wrote to "around 20" providers.
She finally came to an agreement with Aareal Bank last summer.
She wrote an email to the Foreign Office and asked to be listed on the Ministry's website alongside the other blocked account providers.
"That worked immediately."
Termination of the business relationship
In January of this year, Aareal Bank wanted to terminate the business relationship. “They gave me two and a half months to find another bank. They didn't give any reasons at the time, ”says Derns. Two letters from Aareal Bank to Derns, which SPIEGEL has received, support this statement.
Aareal Bank does not want to "disclose details of business relationships with our customers and related information due to applicable laws," according to a written statement from the bank. "We basically strive for long-term customer relationships," it continues. »Aareal Bank still has the option of terminating an existing business relationship properly and with a reasonable period of notice, for example in the event of abnormalities in the use of the account or high manual effort, for example to meet high compliance standards.« two months.
Levke Derns says two months were far too little time to find a new bank.
"I immediately started looking and contacted at least 30 banks again - but I couldn't find anyone until the end," she says.
You have asked Aareal Bank for a postponement.
Initially, the bank agreed to it.
“But at the end of June it was really over.” Afterwards, she was no longer able to make any further payments to the students.
An update in 14 days
Then why didn't she communicate this to those affected?
Levke Derns says: “I thought until the very end that we would still find a solution.
I didn't mean to panic too quickly.
I'm very sorry for what has happened now. "Perhaps another provider could take over the students' accounts because she was" in talks. "
Your company will probably file for bankruptcy.
In the night after this conversation, the students concerned will receive an email.
"Your money is with Aareal Bank," it says in English.
The money cannot be moved at the moment.
"We'll send you another update in about 14 days."
Dan McCarthy, the American in Kiel, can't wait that long. He has to transfer the premiums that are urgently due to his health insurance company - but his current account balance is not sufficient for this. "I would be in a fix without the help of my friends," he says. It's about 45 euros.