Because Berlin has become a very popular city many young people are looking for a new home around here. A large proportion of these young people are foreigners and do not really have a clue about the real estate market in Germany. Several times I heard stories about scammers who try to take advantage of the naivity of these newcomers. This article is meant as a warning and includes my personal experience with a real estate scam.
Because scammers sometimes use names of innocent people I censored the names in this article.
Too good to be true
The stories I have heard regarding this subject are mostly based on the naivety of the victim: A foreign student comes to Berlin for half a year and falls for this great appartment in the center of Berlin for a very good price and makes a deposit before he or she ever saw the actual appartment. Let me give you one advise before I continue this article: If something is too good to be true, it is most often not true. (This tip does not only apply to appartments: An Iphone on Ebay for 40 Euro is also a bit too cheap).
The method of the real estate scam
An advertisement with one of these “fairytale-appartments” always guarantees many interested people. This contributes to the succes of this kind of real estate scams, the scammer has a large group of potential victims and only a very small percentage has to be succesfull for this kind of scam to be lucrative.
In reply to these emails the swindler answers with an innocent email. He makes sure the email consists of a lot of facts and makes sure the potential buyer gets interested and enthusiastic. After some trust is gained, the scammer asks the buyer to make a deposit. As you can read in the example later in this article one argument is often use: “I just want to be sure that you are “really” interested and not wasting my time”.
Most buyers will already distrust the situation and decide to stop having contact with this seller/swindler. However, the foreign student who has been sleeping in Youth Hostels for the last couple of weeks might fall for the trick because of desperation. The investment of the real estate scammers is so small that one deposit of 500 Euro already makes up for the whole `project´.
My own experience with a real estate scammer
Offcourse I did not want to write this article based on stories of other people. So i decided to find myself a real estate scam. It was not very difficult to find a “fairytale-appartment”: More than 100 square meters in the centre of Berlin for only 450 Euros per month. Perfect! And if this appartment was not a scam I would have loved to live there by now…
After writing a first email I received an email with no traces of real estate scam in it.
As mentioned, Mr. Jorge from Spain is not asking for any money yet and writes us a polite and honest email. He ends this email with a lot of details about the house (not in the picture). Despite of his German (which is quite bad) the scammer could sound reliable to a foreign student from Spain. The email only tells the potential buyers that he is an architect from Spain and lived in Germany for a while. Now that he moves back to Spain he wants someone to live in his appartment. The confidence of a buyer could be increasing because of this email and this is exactly the goal of this first email.
Not so innocent after all
Because we are curious about his next message we send a short email back and let him know we are interested in visiting the house.
In his second mail Jorge is not so innocent anymore and starts to soud like a swindler. His poor knowledge of the German language starts to be a bit confusing but his story should make us believe that he will fly from Spain to Germany and wants to be certain that we really own enough money. He had a bad experience two weeks before and does not want to fly to Germany without having a real potential buyer again. We therefore need to transfer 980 euro to his account. I quote:
“I need to be sure that you will be there, to make me feel confident that you have the money to pay the house. I do not want to repeat my bad experiences from two weeks ago”
On the email above we replied that we do own the money and can bring it to the meeting. Obviously we are not interested in tranferring money to his account in advance. If you get scammed by this man you have to be quite naive but I assume that there are scammers out there that at least speak fluent German and have better stories than this Spanish rookie.
In his answer he asks us once again to respect his situation and transfer the money before he flies to Berlin. He gives his bank details and tells us we can meet 2-3 days after the money is transferred. At this first meeting he will already be able to give us the keys of the appartment and everything will be arranged in one day (!). Offcourse the scammer is trying to make the potential buyers get back into the `fairytale´: If you are in a hurry it sounds fabulous to have the keys to your new home in three days.
Funny fact in this email is that Jorge ends the mail with “Jorge und Familie”. He wants to project the image of a reliable man who is an architect, 47 years old and has dinner every night with his little daughter and his beautiful wife. He even attached an ID-dokument with this email. It is quite clear that he is trying to gain our trust and give us arguments to transfer the money.
The Western Union MTCN-Trick
When we tell Jorge once again we are not planning to transfer any money he comes up with a whole new plan. Although his explanation is very confusing again, the bottom line is that we are allowed to transfer money to a family member or friend. In this way we will not have any risk and he will still know that we really own the money. But is this really as secure as it sounds?
What the scammer tries to realize here is in direct connection with the Western Union bank. Scammers often use the Western Union bank for specific reasons. When I decide to transfer money to my father with Western Union I will receive a MTCN number of this transaction. My father can pick up the money with the MTCN number but the trick is that the scammer can also do this if he owns the MTCN number. This is why Jorge writes:
“With Western Union it is very easy for me to check if you really have the money. You send me your name and the MTCN number and I can check the website www.westernunion.de. This website will tell me if it is `valid´ or `invalid´.”
The scammer gives the buyer the feeling that he just wants to be sure the money is there and he needs the MTCN number for that.This is a trick which is used by many bloggers. If you are interested you can check this example or search in Google for `Western Union Scams´.
Tip: Use your brains
After we send the scammer the earlier used message again he gave up and we did not hear from him again. Hopefully this scammer had contact with some other potential victims because I found his approach very transparent. Sentences like “I can be in Berlin 2 days after the money is tranferred” and “I can give you the key on the same day” are not really plausible.
The point of this article is that you should keep using your brains at all times and don´t let the image of a perfect story influence you. The point is still that these scammers will mainly focus on young foreigners: These usually do not speak German fluently, are in a hurry and don´t know that much about the rules in a country. Remember that things that seem implausible are often implausable. When you have doubts about a seller, you can always stop by the address of the house, and ring the bell. Check if the house is actually for sale and ask the resident if she is familiar with the advertisement.
Do not lose your money on scams
Never transfer money to a person you have never met in person. This is not the normal procedure and does not make sense when you want to rent an appartment.
Berlin is a wonderful city but there are bad people everywhere.
I wish you all the best of luck with finding your fairytale-appartment.