On a cloudy afternoon at the end of July, the sidewalk near Voltaire subway station in Paris is packed with people. As they calmly wait in line and chat, one could easily mistake them for summer sale shoppers. The reality is, however, more prosaic. All forty-something students, employees, parents or friends of friends want to visit – and hope to rent – the same 3 room apartment. By the time the real estate agents arrive, some 20 minutes later, it's already raining and the line simply quadruples. Everybody herds towards the entrance and the hallway, where a form has to be filled in before actually seeing the location.
Twenty minutes before the visit, the sidewalk is pretty packed.
Shabby stairs, narrow corridor, third floor. Behind the entrance door, a small vestibule is piled with old stuff. It smells like gramma's house. As it turns out, it actually was gramma's house – until she passed away not so long ago. In the living room, as the wall paint peels, the same gloomy mood and decor prevails: an old armchair and a chiffonier plus a ragged carpet. In the bedroom with a view towards the boulevard there are two pet cages on the bed. They may hold two cats, but one can never tell. They may accommodate some stiff animals to match the tatty wallpaper. As for the bathroom, a scar the width of an arm carves one wall top to bottom. Technically speaking, this isn't a scam, except for the twelve or thirteen hundred Euros to pay monthly for the rent of a swamp. Still, the real scams are as numerous and as tangible as they get – they involve ID and money theft.
In Paris, for instance, plenty of on-line scams revolve around real-estate. A year ago, when I was looking for an apartment to rent, I stumbled on an ad for two rooms (about 35 square meters) in the 17th arrondissement, fully furnished and including all the appliances one can wish. Everything at the incredible rent of only 550 EUR, as seen in the screenshot below. This was too good to be true (As I found out later, the rent is usually at least double in that neighborhood.) I replied to the so-called landlord and, in my naiveté, also sent part of the required documents, which, by the way, are the de facto standard in Parisian real-estate.
First e-mail from the scammer – the apartment seems almost unreal.
His (or her) answer, however, puzzled me, as I specifically told him (or her) that I can't get to Paris on such short notice (less than a week). Moreover, the urge to send the deposit via money transfer services was suspect. After my second reply, in which I explained why I'm not going to send the required amount and asked for an alternative, I never heard back. Yes, this was a true scam, exploiting the biggest problem with all major cities in the world – as they usually are overpopulated, finding a place to stay is not just a problem, but The Problem. This was only the first of many scams I saw in the two and a half months that I searched for a place.
The second e-mail – pictures in exchange of… a small fortune in Euros via money transfer services.
What can you do to protect against real estate scams?
As autumn approaches, and some of you prepare to settle in another country for study or work, it would be best to prepare in advance and visit the city a few weeks (or months) before actually moving there. If you are among the less fortunate and don't have a university or employer taking care of your accommodation, be extremely careful. Ideally, these things should be easy to arrange over the Internet, but as the demand is so high in places like New York, London, Paris, Amsterdam or Berlin, chances are you will end up either getting a lousy place to stay. Even worse, you could get robbed.
Once there, going through a real-estate agency may spare you some trouble and money, in exchange for high fees and commissions. Discussing directly with landlords whose ads you can find on dedicated Web sites or newspapers is another option, but the risks are even higher.
Be careful with the documents you hand over for your rent “dossier”. The Parisian landlords and agents, for instance, are collecting a huge amount of sensitive data, as they ask for copies after your passport/id card, bank statements, payslips, utility bills, current rent bills, etc. Technically speaking, they should be enough for any crook to steal your identity. So, even if you are technically competing with another hundred people for a single-room apartment, take the precaution of asking the landlord or agent, for their papers: ID card, title of propriety and relevant tax statement. Trust me, they will all be stunned by such arequest. But hey, as they get all your data and check you, why can’t you do the same?
Avoid the common traps, such as prices way below market, the overcharge numbers they ask you to call, the landlord that doesn't live in the city and asks for a deposit via money transfer services to confirm your “rendez-vous”, the landlord/agent who cannot show you the place you are supposed to rent because of some renovation, etc., etc., etc.
As difficult as it can be, try to open a bank account and pay by cheque. Remember, you hand them the magic paper if – and only if – you sign the contract and actually get the keys of your future “home” in hand. Never, ever pay in cash or by credit card (i.e. disclosing them your credit card number and CVC)!
Good luck finding a place where to stay and safe surfing everybody!
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