The anatomy of an apartment scam

Everybody loves to make a good deal. Aparment scammers know this all too well: They post fake ads for cheap rental apartments online, and if you contact them, they ask you to send them money in advance — and as soon you have done so, they stop responding to your emails. It’s easy to protect yourself against apartment scammers if you keep three potential red flags in mind.

I live in the city of Zurich, in Switzerland. Zurich is a very nice place to live. While it’s not a “metropolis” like London, Tokyo, New York, or Berlin, it is a nice combination of urban avant-garde modernity with the coziness and intimacy typical of Switzerland. It’s no wonder that a fair number of people want to live in Zurich.

The obvious consequence of Zurich’s popularity is that it’s not easy to find an apartment here. For example, if we take a look at all municipalities in the canton of Zurich (a canton in Switzerland is like a state in the United States), it’s obvious that apartment availability is below average in the city of Zurich:

In 2015, only 0.22% of all apartments were available either for rent or for buying. Data source: https://www.stadt-zuerich.ch/prd/de/index/statistik/themen/bauen-wohnen/leerwohnungen-leerflaechen/leerwohnungszaehlung.html.

If we only compare apartment availability in the five biggest municipalities in the canton of Zurich, it becomes even more clear that an apartment in the city of Zurich is a rare good:

Available apartments are quite rare in the citiy of Zurich, although the situation has improved ever so slightly in the past couple of years.

Zurich, then, is a desirable place for people to live, and demand seems to match, and maybe even to outpace, supply. This is the ideal market situation for scammers: A lot of people at any given time are looking to rent an apartment in Zurich, and the fierce competition for the available apartments can blunt people’s critical faculties — because you are a teeny tiny bit desperate to find a place, you become vulnerable to scammers who will offer you a great place for an even greater price.

Currently, I live in Zurich, and I will probably move in the comings months because my job situation changed. One option for me is to stay in Zurich, but just move to a part of the city more amenable to travelling outside of Zurich. That’s how I stumbled upon an apartment ad that would have fit the bill nicely. Unfortunately, it was a scam.

Red flag 1: Too good to be true

The fake apartment ad that piqued my interest was this one:

This fake ad was actually not terrible — it was not immediately obvious that it is fake.

Here are some additional photos within the fake ad:

Doesn’t look that fake.
Seems very nice — and, again, not obviously fake.

On the bottom right in the ad, there is a small standard disclaimer about potential scams. One of the things it says is to be sceptical of offers that seem too good to be true.

That is very sensible advice. But how exactly can “too good to be true” be quantified? I haven’t done a proper analysis of the Zurich apartment market, but roughly estimated, the base rate price for such an apartment in Zurich should be between 900 and 1'000 Swiss Francs (around 920 and 1020 US Dollars). With a price of 700 Swiss Francs, the apartment in question was way below my estimated market average.

But you never know: Maybe there were contextual factors that dragged the price down. For example, a good slice of the rental market in Zurich are properties owned by cooperatives, not private businesses. These cooperatives usually offer apartments at below-market value, because they are renting the apartments not for profit.

So, while it sounded too good to be true, it did not sound impossibly good. I decided to establish contact.

Best practice for red flag 1

What should you do when you encounter an ad that is sort of too good to be true, but not obviously fake? I think that a reasonable course of action is the following:

  • Quantify the probability that the ad in question is fake.
  • In my case, I set the probability for the ad being fake at 0.5, or 50%.
  • If you decide to proceed and establish contact, adjust that probability according to information with regard to two additional potential red flags: Information about the alleged landlord, and being asked to send money in advance.

Red flag 2: The landlord offers no proof that he or she actually exists

When you inquire about an apartment that you saw in an online apartment, be it real or fake, you will probably engage in an exchange of emails. That, in and of itself, is not unusual, of course.

However, just because someone is sending you emails doesn’t mean that that someone really is who he or she says it is. In my fake apartment case, that someone was called “Isabella Lane” (the name is fake, but for practical purposes, I will use “Isabella” in the restof this text). Here’s what Isabella had to say about herself:

My name is Isabella Lane , I am 36 years old and I worked as a diplomatic functionary at British Embassy in Switzerland, during which I bought this apartment. I have an adorable husband (Martin) and a daughter (Antonia). Another member of our family is a six year old Labrador Retriever, we have all closed deep in our heart.

“Isabella” has told me how old she is, where she used to work, and even told me a little bit about her family — mentioning their dog is nice attention to detail. However, besides the somewhat unconvincing English (Isabella was supposed to be a native English speaker, because she suggested in a previous email that we switch from German to English), notice how there is no concrete information in her descripion. It’s a vague backstory, but there is no way of knowing whether any of it is true.

I told Isabella that I wanted to get to know her better, and I asked whether she has any social media profiles. She didn’t:

Unfortunaltey due to my jobs I couldn’t built up a social media profile. Let me known if there is any other way that you would like to learn about me.

Well, you can’t expect everybody to have social media accounts these days. So I actually did propose another way to learn about her: To produce some ID. I event went ahead and sent Isabella a photo of my identification card, in the spirit of I show you mine, you show me yours:

This is my actual Swiss identification card. The pen is covering my signature and the ID number.

Unsurprisingly, Isabella couldn’t produce any ID on her part:

I am really sorry about this but I can’t share my documents either. This is one of the most important rules about my job.

She couldn’t produce any documents to verify her identity — that’s one of the “most important rules” about her job. Well, ironically, that is true: A scammer will never show any ID.

But I was in a fairly charitable mood, and I proposed a third way for Isabella to prove that she actually existed. I proposed that she give me one or two contacts at her current or former place of employment. And, much to my surprise, she did actually provide me with a contact:

I you want to speak with someone about me that person can be Arthur Modestas. He is my boss. His contact email is arthurmodestas@gmail.com.

When I read that, I actually burst out laughing. “Arthur Modestas” is Isabella’s “boss”, and his contact email is a run-of-the-mill gmal address. The amount of information on “Arthur Modestas” is exactly the same as the information of information on Isabella, zero.

Best practice for red flag 2

If your prospective landlord is unable to prove in any way that he or she actually exists, he or she probably doesn’t. It’s very important that you do not allow yourself be lulled into a false sense of security because of some warm backstory about a nice family and their dog that they love so much — think in terms of and insist on facts.

At this point, to me, the probability that the apartment was fake and the whole thing a scam was somewhere around 0.95, or 95%. Essentially, given two red flags, it was fairly obvious the whole thing is almost certainly scam. But I don’t like to think in absolutes, so I took into account a third dimension.

Red flag 3: Asking for money in advance

During my exchange with Isabella, we did not only talk about who we are and how we can prove it. Isabella wanted to get down to business fast. That involved sending her some money in advance. She explained why:

The problem is simply that I have a lot of work here in London where I work as diplomatic functionary and my husband as chef. And I have little time to meet you in person and show you the apartment. Currently, I have few days free. This allows me to come to Zurich to show you the apartment. For this I will have to be there but I can’t be sure that you are seriously interested and you would be willing to rent that apartment. Four weeks ago I had a potential tenant which asked me if I could come to Zurich in order to show him the apartment because he was interested to rent it. Then I bought a plane ticket and I went to Zurich to arrange a meeting with the tenant. When I arrived, I tried to contact the person, but he reacted neither my calls nor my emails. The result was quite simply, a loss of my time and a waste of my money.

She works in London, she got burned once by an unreliable prospective tenant. This time arount, she wanted some protection:

I do not want this happening again and I was informed accordingly on the Internet about a possible protection. During my research I came across the protection from Cozy Company (www.cozy.co), which can help us to make this transaction safe for both parties.

This does not sound too bad. Cozy is actually a real service that makes it simple for landlords and tenants to organize everything. As a matter of fact, Cozy looks so good that I would actually like to start using it!

Cozy is a real, reputable service. Using it sounds

However, very soon, Isabella explained that what we were going to use Cozy for was an advance payment of 1'400 Swiss Francs:

1. The rent for the first month (700 CHf) + you will be required to pay a security deposit of 700 CHF (total 1400 CHF).
This security deposit will be refunded to you at the end of the contract .
PS: After this first payment through Cozy Protection, the payment will be made monthly to my bank account on a scheduled date (at your convenience).
2. The payment is a simple formality and by paying you are not obliged to rent the apartment. You are just respecting the policy of Cozy Protection company.

Notice how she kept referring to Cozy as “Cozy Protection company”. That’s a bit weird, but it’s very intentional. Cozy itself is not a money transfer company, and by referring to Cozy as “Cozy Protecion company”, the idea of security and protection gets stuck in your head.

Be that as it may, I was curious to see how Isabella would usurp Cozy for setting up a one-time transaction. Well, she didn’t: She simply produced a fake invoice for which she stole the logo of Cozy:

The fake invoice my scammer sent me. The attention to detail is somewhat impressive, even though the content is borderline ridiculous. Click here for a PDF version.

The invoice looks somewhat legitimate, at first. It looks like an official document. However, once you read the actual contents, it’s hard not to laugh. For example, out of the blue, a certain “Nicu Lafrenz” is introduced. The fake invoice even contains a fake background story of Nicu:

Nicu LAFRENZ takes responsibility for financial and accounting activities. Since joining CozyDeposit PROTECTION in 2008, Nicu LAFRENZ has held a number of senior roles. He has led several financial projects and established sound commercial and financial control policies. In 2012, Nicu LAFRENZ was promoted to his current position.

Nicu Lafrenz is an “agent” who has led several “financial projects” — I’m sure he has.

Best practice for red flag 3

Asking for money in advance is probably the most important red flag — as soon as a prospective landlord does that, you should believe that a scammer is at play. Do not, under any circumstances, send anyone money in advance.

After red flag 3, I estimated the probability that the ad was fake at around 0.999, or 99.9%. It’s still possible that it was legitimate after all, but given three red flags, that possibility is exceedingly small.

Fin: A rating for the scam

In the end, I gave Isabella a rating for the whole scam experience.

Since our correspondence is drawing to a close, here are my scores for your scam:
Credibility of the fake apartment ad: 8 / 10
I have to compliment you on this! I think that the fake ad you put together was well done! Usually, apartment scams are very obvious from the ad itself, but you created one that didn’t look scammy from the very get go. Of course, that kind of apartment at that location for that kind of price seemed unlikely, because it is below market value — but it is not so to an impossible degree. Your seemed like an awesome opportunity, but not like something that is outright too good to be true.
Credibility of the “Isabella Lane” character: 2 / 10
You dropped the ball here, and you did so very quickly. While it was a nice touch to briefly introduce your fake family (emotional bonding), everything else was unimaginative and felt cheap. The only way make it more obvious that you are a scammer would have been to claim something along the line of “Isabella” being a secret agent for MI6. “Isabella Lane”, as you might by now guess, was borderline ridiculous to me. The icing on the ridiculous cake was Isabella’s boss, “Arthur Modestas” — you literally made me laugh with that one.
Quality of your fake invoice: 7 / 10
You did quite a job here! Nice attention to detail, and not unlike what invoices usually look like. Of course, the contents are, again, borderline ridiculous (Nicu Lafrenz), but the attention to detail is impressive — praise where praise is due. What I found impressive as well is how you tried to pretend that your fake, inexistent “CozyDeposit PROTECTION Company” is associated with the legitimate Cozy service; you even stole their logo.
Persuasive communication skills: 5 / 10
You didn’t start off in a scammy manner — you actually took time to “get to know me”, and thus, you created a sense of legitimacy. But then, as soon as it came to convincing me that “Isabella Lane” is real, you failed. So this one is a mixed bag — perhaps your communication had higher quality as long as you could stick to a script, and you scrambled off script. Your reaction to my Bitcoin proposal was especially disappointing; you weren’t even trying.
Effort: 6 / 10
In a way, I have the impression that you did invest quite some time into your scam, since we did go back and forth for a while, and you couldn’t have used emails prepared in advance for that — your emails seemed very context-sensitive to me, and thus actually written exclusively for our conversation. However, as soon as things became challenging, you basically gave up — and I just don’t like quitters.
Overall score: 6 / 10
This scam was a mixed bag — some things were good, impressive even, while others were, to me, laughably bad.
“All the best” is what I usually say as goodbye, but really, I do not wish you all the best, whoever and how many you might be,
Marko

Conclusion: Keep calm and look at the facts

Apartment scammers aren’t the biggest problem there is, and they are probably not even the biggest online scams that are going on. But there is something particularly nasty about them: People who are looking for apartments are looking for a place to live, a place they can call home. In that sense, apartment scammers are penetrating an intimate part of peoples’ lives. Finding a place to live is not just some superficial, optional consumer expenditure. It’s an important personal decision that has considerable impact on our day-to-day lives.

In order to avoid falling prey to apartment scams, you should be wary of three potential red flags:

  • Too good to be true: It’s not impossible that you will run into an apartment with a rent much lower than usual for a given area. However, if you do, make sure to curb your initial enthusiasm and analyze the facts in a level-headed, non-emotional manner.
  • The invisibe landlord: If the person who is supposedly renting out the apartment is unable to provide any indication that he or she is real, then your alarms should begin going off.
  • Paying in advance: If the alleged landlord asks you send them money before you ever saw the apartment in persion and got to know the landlord, it’s a dead giveaway that you are dealing with a scammer.

Appendix

Scamming the scammer

Im my “review” of the scam above, I wrote something about Bitcoin. During the final couple of emails, after Isabella failed to provide any form of information that would prove her identity, I proposed that Isabella send me some money first. That would, I argued, show me that she was really willing to do business with me:

Fortunately, there is a simple solution that is discrete and keep your anonymity intact — Bitcoin! It’s very easy to get started with Bitcoin:
https://bitcoin.org/en/getting-started
I propose the following:
- Once you have set up Bitcoin, you will transfer me 0.4769 Bitcoin — that is CHF 280 in Bitcoin by today’s exchange rate.
- After I have received the amount from you, I will transfer it back to you.
- After that, I will initiate the CHF 1400 to be transfered to the bank account specified in the Cozy email.
Let me know if you are still interested in establishing our business relationship — I know I am, because at this point, I’m very much in love with your apartment!

That was a “scamming the scammer” joke. However, Isabella didn’t quite get it, at least at first, because that wasn’t the last of our email conversation.

The whole conversation

In the text above, I have only posted excerpts from my conversation with the apartment scammer. If you’d like to read our whole exchange, you can download it here: Part 1, part 2, part 3.