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I am currently looking for an apartment in the near city. Yesterday I found an entry on an online-platform where people rent apartments to students, all in all a serious platform which I have used often without any problems.

Now, that offer I have now seems a little bit shady. I sent this person an email and now I have some serious second thoughts about this.

  • I have never seen the apartment in real. The person renting it immediately sent me many pictures of it, it looks ok though
  • I don't know if it is common but I should send her my passport. (it's my first time moving, so maybe this is normal)
  • She wants me to pay the rent to her mother in italy (this is kinda strange, but the apartment seems to belong to her parents)
  • She wants me to first read the contract, then make the first payment and then the contract is signed (seems like the reddest of all flags here)

I know that this is not much information, but maybe some of you recognize a scam-pattern and can tell me. I hope, that this is not scam, as I need that apartment as soon as possible)

The thing with sending the payment to Italy is concerning me most. But she said, there will be a contract and the first payment will be made after the contract is signed. After signing the contract I should transfer the security deposit and the first month rent.

Possible reasons why I'm not quite sure if it is scam:

  • It's from a serious platform

  • They gave me a real address and sent pictures

Is this a scam? It seems somehow serious though but these little red flags made me think.

If it is a scam, what possible damage can there be done? Identity theft as they want to see my scanned passport?

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    The person renting it is asking you to send money to her mother in Italy. OK... But this person herself is still local? Or no? If so, you should be able to arrange to see the apartment in person and, ideally, an agreement to pay this person rent and let them deal with sending money home to Italy. If not, I'd probably keep looking, scam or no scam. – Steve-O Jul 23 at 13:20
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    Apparent contradiction: "She wants me to first read the contract, then make the first payment and then the contract is signed" vs. "But she said, there will be a contract and the first payment will be made after the contract is signed." – nanoman Jul 23 at 13:59
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    If the city is near, can you ask the landlord to visit the property? Most scammers (most, but not all) won't have an apartment to show you. – Quora Feans Jul 23 at 14:49
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    "I should send her my passport" - the physical passport, or a photo of it? Your passport is the property of the government which issued it, it is illegal to give it away. (and even if they only need a photo, it might be dangerous, they could learn more personal information about you than what would be strictly necessary) – vsz Jul 24 at 4:26
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    There's a platform where people rent apartments, which you have used often, but yet this is your first time moving? How does this work? – pipe Jul 24 at 14:20
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The two basic rules for not getting scammed while apartment hunting are:

  • Never sign the contract before you inspected the property in person
  • Never pay money to inspect a property in person

Carefully chosen pictures can hide a lot of nasty details. Pictures also don't communicate sound or smell. So insist on a tour of the apartment before you sign the contract or pay any money. That's not just to protect you from a malicious scam but also to protect yourself from a good-faith offer which is just a bad fit for you.

She wants me to first read the contract, then make the first payment and then the contract is signed (seems like the reddest of all flags here)

This indeed makes no sense. The first rent payment is due after you signed the contract. Why would you pay money to anyone when there is no contract signed by both parties which says what you are paying for? There is no legal basis on which you make that payment.

It's from a serious platform

Even the best online platforms can not keep all the scammers out. They would need to do serious background checks on anyone they let on their platform, and even then they couldn't be 100% sure that nobody dupes them with falsified identification documents. No public real estate platform does that.

If you want to be 100% sure you are not dealing with a scammer, then only deal with established real estate agencies which have a good reputation.

That doesn't mean you should never deal with private people. Cutting out the realtor as a middle-man can save a lot of money. But if you deal with private people you don't know, follow the principle of trust, but verify.

They gave me a real address and sent pictures

That proves nothing. The address could be picked by a random click on Google Maps while the pictures are from a different apartment. Do the outlook of the windows confirm that it's that address? But even if it matches, then both might be copied from a real estate listing someone else posted a couple month ago.

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    This answer is mainly a duplicate of money.stackexchange.com/a/111470/5458 You should provide attribution in the form of a link to the other answer, even though you wrote both. Otherwise it may get moderated as multiposting. – Ben Voigt Jul 23 at 18:16
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    @Aaron: meta.stackexchange.com/q/158928/135695 meta.stackexchange.com/q/113385/135695 meta.stackexchange.com/q/171969/135695 meta.stackexchange.com/q/104227/135695 meta.stackexchange.com/q/267318/135695 Note that I am encouraging reuse of the answer, if it is on-topic to both questions and if a link to the older answer is provided. There are good reasons for links, for example if a law changes that requires updating the answer, you can use the links to find them all, while right now you'd have no idea that another answer needs to be edited. – Ben Voigt Jul 23 at 21:48
  • Ok fine. I feel like some of that meta discussion supports my comment, but your point is still valid. So it's not quite attribution that is the biggest problem. Regardless, I've deleted my original comment and +1'ed your comment. Thank you for your response, and apologies if my original wording was too harsh. @BenVoigt – Aaron Jul 23 at 22:52
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    "Carefully chosen pictures can hide a lot of nasty details. Pictures also don't communicate sound or smell" The other (main?) problem with a "pictures-only" inspection is that the person supposedly renting you the apartment might have no connection with it whatsoever... they have simply scoured genuine ads for suitable pictures and set up a fake let. – TripeHound Jul 24 at 9:06
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    "might be copied from a real estate listing someone else posted" -- for that matter, the questioner now has the same photos. So being able to send those photos to someone is no proof at all of owning the apartment, since the questioner does not own the apartment! – Steve Jessop Jul 25 at 13:11
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Even for any landlord that wants to rent the apartment to evade tax process, it is too fishy to ask the renters to send money outside Austria to Italy. As some people already mentioned, anyone can rent an Airbnb apartment and take tons of photo to scam people, so sometimes see for yourself is not enough.

Since the country tag is Austria, it seems the "potential" scammer has "skipped" many important practices that in place to prevent scam/fraud/ripoff:

  • Landlord always ask renters about SCHUFA, required identification validation from Post office
  • Landlord is required to open a separate bank account to deposit the deposit payments. Thus, this must be done locally.
  • If you don't trust the landlord, you can ask to have a SCHUFA check, usually scammer will back down, or clueless scammer will give you many excuses.

Bear in mind that, no countries are free from online rental scam (please use google translate).

  • Actually, not all landlords ask for Schufa. We just rented a shop and no such check was made. I do agree that it is common and is usually done, but "always" is an overstatement. – Tom Jul 24 at 7:56
  • @Tom I agree that there are exceptions (e.g. connections, trusted agents, goodwill, face to face interview, etc), but renting a shop is definitely not a good example. – mootmoot Jul 24 at 8:25
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Since this is in Austria, you can check the Grundbuch to verify who the owner of the property actually is. This can be done online and the price is about 12 EUR. We recently did just that for a shop we are renting. It's simply part of the due dilligence process.

Taking copies of passports seems to be very common here, it is surprising to me as well (foreigner, but living in Austria), but it seems fairly normal.

Sending money to another EU country is unusual, but not necessarily a sign of a scam. If the Grundbuch shows that her mother actually is the owner, why not?

However, you should never, ever, ever give anyone money before a contract is signed. That one is the big red flag to me. Without a contract, they can basically take the money, stand up and leave the room and you have nothing in your hands.

It is not the fact that they want the first month paid in advance - that also seems pretty standard here - but that they want money before signing a contract. That makes absolutely no sense.

And yes, of course, you should never do any deal with real estate without having seen it in person.

7

This looks like a well known scam, at least in big cities in Spain. I have seen entries in serious platforms at least for Madrid and Barcelona.

In this kind of scam the poster of the entry always is asking to send money to a foreign country, usually Italy or UK, claiming they are living abroad and they have to leave.

They post a very nice apartment in a nice neighbourhood, normally with a pretty cheap price for that zone. This posts always have a lot of pictures to make a good impression.

If you decide to send the money they will run away with it and you will never hear back from them.

For reference, here is a twitter thread (written in Spanish) with a user who decided to troll one of those scammers, you can see how the scam works over there.

  • ha ha ... got to love the final in your link. "Hey I've got problem with the appartment: the boiler does not work and ... there was a person inside the house when I arrived" ... accompanied by a picture of someone gagged and tied up to a chair kidnapping style. – Hoki Jul 26 at 10:32
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My best advice would be to start looking for a new apartment, and don't pay anything first and then 'sign' a contract. To me it seems that you would read 1 copy of a contract, pay the supposed mother, and he would hand you a different kind of copy... Or you would pay to the supposed mother and he would vanish.

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Funnily, I was in almost the exact situation. I had quite easily found a place on a pretty popular platform as well. Before I moved in, I was staying in a couple of Airbnbs and one of the natives of the city freaked out when I told her the details. She said that not having a viewing is very uncommon and that it reeks of a scam, etc.

At that time, I got pretty paranoid since if she was right, I would pretty much be homeless. One accidental trick that I discovered here is to ask the person you booked the apartment from something along the lines of "How do I know you are not a scam?", and if it's a genuine realtor, you should expect at least some level of defensiveness and shock. Of course, this is not to say that there won't be genuine people who just won't care, but I believe any real person will take some action to try to prove they are real.

Anyway, it later turned out that everything was fine, and they didn't allow viewing so as to not disturb the current residents of the apartment.

I just wanted to add a "It turned out alright" story to counter-balance all the (not entirely unfounded) paranoia.

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    I just can't imagine renting a property for a long-term contract (i.e. over a few days or weeks) without having seen it... In most countries, contracts (or even regulations) have provisions for force the current occupant to accept visits when their lease ends (though this may be restrictive, e.g. X visits of at most Y duration, during the hours of A-B, etc.). – jcaron Jul 25 at 13:13
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    I too can't imagine renting somewhere sight unseen, and I've been to more than a few uncomfortable viewings where current tenants follow you around staring daggers at you. – Mark Booth Jul 25 at 17:21
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There are a few red flags indeed. I am not from Austria, nor am I familiar with local laws. But a few things are universal.

Unless it is a hotel or AirBnb, never rent an apartment without seeing it. Putting aside the fact that those photos could be scrapped of a real estate web site or from AirBnb or simply stock photos, there are many factors that can make an apartment a nightmare: bad smells (like cigarette smell or dog pee), noisy neighbors, construction site next door (ok, that may be temporary), dogs that bark incessantly, something that is not visible in the photos because of the angle of the photo that is unacceptable to you, etc. Even when you see it, you may still miss something, but at least you've made an effort to eliminate apartments that obviously do not meet your criteria.

Never pay for anything before the contract is signed. Just reading a contract does not mean the contract is executed, it only means that you are getting informed about the deal you are about to enter into. It is not unusual for the first or first two months payment to be due at contract signing, which means that the contract is first signed and immediately after, a payment is made.

Always read the contract carefully. It may be in plain German, or in legalese, either way make an effort to read all the clauses. After you sign it, it will be too late to find out that you are responsible for all damages inside the apartment, including those caused by normal wear and tear. If, for example, the heating unit (if there is one in the apartment) dies because it is old, you do not want to be on the hook for replacing it.

Since you are planning to rent from a private person, you can negotiate contract terms. If you see something you don't like, say so, ask for it to be changed. If it is important and they refuse to change it, don't sign. Property management companies (companies that manage a large number of apartments) usually have standard contracts, and they are rarely negotiable. That does not mean you should not speak up, just in case they will agree to change the contract. If you see something you really do not like, do not sign.

Always make sure that the person saying they're the owner is indeed the owner. Even if he/she opens the door for you, that means nothing, as the apartment could be an AirBnb rented for a few days. Usually there is some governmental database that records the ownership of all real estate properties that you could consult. I believe somebody already mentioned a database that you can access for a small fee. That fee is worth it, even when the presumed owner is legit.

Always make sure you sign the contract with the owner or somebody that has a valid power of attorney. From the way you described the situation, it seems that the person you talked to intends to sign the contract, while the mother owns the apartment. That is OK if and only if that person has a power of attorney from the mother that covers the renting of the apartment. You would have to read that power of attorney to ascertain that is true. Some power of attorney comes very specific (X can manage the renting of my apartment), others are more general (X can manage my estate in Austria). If the person you talked to cannot or will not produce the power of attorney, stay away. There have been in the past people trying to take advantage of their relatives' property, and when the rightful owner realizes you are living in their apartment, they'll kick you out in a second, never mind whatever contract you think you have. If they do produce it, ask for a copy for your records. (I cannot say whether a simple copy or a notarized one would be required, it depends on local law.) The copy of the power of attorney and the contract together are what gives you the right to live in the apartment.

Sending money outside of the country may or may not be an issue. If there are laws regulating how rent is paid and if they require a local bank account, then sending the money to Italy is a clear red flag. Even without laws about the rent payments, it may indicate the owner's desire to do tax evasion. Income is taxed, but only if the fiscal authorities know about it. And again, it may be perfectly legitimate. On this one, I would look for advice from people familiar with Austrian laws and regulations. If you are unsure how to find out, the safer route is to insist on making the payments locally. (Bank accounts can be accessed from outside of the country. I have used my debit card when on vacation abroad, both at stores and at ATMs. All you need is to inform the bank you will use the card abroad, so they do not block it for suspicious activity, and possibly to pay some foreign transaction fee if the bank does not waive those.)

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If you have to jump through all these hoops do not do it. Always test the plumbing before making a decision. If you can't do that, don't sign anything. Imagine you just ate some spicy food and have to go to the restroom only to find out the plumbing doesn't work? Think of the best but plan for the worst.

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