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I recently responded to an apartment rental ad in Paris that the owner is managing. Flat is attractive but a smidge on the expensive side, not usually scam territory. However, the following email exchange raised a few red flags. The owner purports to have moved to a small town in the South far away and to already have had to come to Paris for a potential renter only to get stood up, and doesn't want to come in vain. They write [translated]:

As indicated in the previous email, and as stipulated in the lease agreement, the payment of the first month's rent will only be made by POSTAL DEPOSIT, the receipt of which (Western Union receipt) will be handed over on the day of the visit after signing the lease agreement. This procedure reassures us of the availability of the funds and prevents unnecessary travel due to the distance. I have already made trips for visits that ended in disappointment because either the interested parties were not present or their first month's rent was not yet ready or sometimes I receive checks without provision.

Procedure for establishing the deposit by mandate (Western Union) You go to a transfer agency (Western Union) with the 1500€ in cash (or your bank card) equipped with your ID, and you simply request to make a transfer via a relative (whom you trust and are easily in contact with); in this case, you can do it in the name of your guarantor or a relative of yours so that they can bring the receipt on the day of the visit. After cashing the funds, the postman will issue you a receipt with references (MTCN code) that should allow the sole beneficiary of the transfer (the relative in question) to withdraw the sum with their ID. Once the transfer is made, you will send me by email the proof (photo or scan) to ensure the availability of the Western Union deposit in the name of your relative; for the confirmation of the appointment. I want to be reassured of the availability of the first month's rent and that you are ready to rent the apartment to avoid any unnecessary travel and avoid being deceived again.

By mutual agreement after the visit, we will proceed with the signing of the lease/handover of the keys and at that moment we will go together to the nearest post office to change the recipient's name of the transfer to my name for withdrawal. If you do not like my apartment, which I highly doubt, you will simply cancel the deposit and your money would be returned to your account.

PS: The first month's rent is not to be sent before the visit. It is just on the details of a close relative of yours in France at first while awaiting our appointment for the visit, it is after the visit and the possible signing of the lease that we will go together to an agency to change the details so that it is put in my name immediately.

The whole procedure seems so contrived, and Western Union is kind of a red flag on its own, as are the owner's reasons for setting this up. However, I do not see where I could lose the money here; I am not familiar with Western Union transfers but it does feel like it should be safe to organize a transfer to a member of my family then to redirect it to the owner after signing the contract + getting the keys. Is this a scam?

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    Stopped reading after "Western Union". This is a scam.
    – littleadv
    Jan 8 at 22:22
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    I mean, I had the same reaction - but how would they actually make out with the money? Jan 8 at 22:29
  • 4
    Looks rather similar to this question on the Travel SE.  (And yes, everyone said that was a scam too.)
    – gidds
    Jan 9 at 15:18
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    @littleadv, totally right, but even before Western Union was mentionned, I understood it was a scam at "The owner purports to have moved to a small town in the South far away and to already have had to come to Paris for a potential renter only to get stood up, and doesn't want to come in vain." => that's the base story for so many variations of this scam.
    – Hoki
    Jan 10 at 11:38
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    @IllusiveBrian My daughter and her boyfriend were back-packing in Jamaica a few years ago. They were having a great time and I wanted to send her a few bucks to keep her going. I opened a WU account, transferred $300 from a credit card, Google-mapped the nearest agent to her (a shop in the village), wired the money to that agency and sent her the pick-up code by WhatsApp. She drew the cash ten minutes later. It's great for sending money to people you know outside of the EU/US bloc. Jan 10 at 15:08

5 Answers 5

81

Your gut is correct, this is a scam.

If you provide all the info requested they can change the receiver's name from your relative to themselves and take the money.

The Western Union Receiver's Name Change Request Form requires the MTCN code, sender info, and receiver name.

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    Thank you for the explanation of the mechanism! I didn't know it was so easy to redirect. Jan 9 at 23:06
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Because they asked for photographic proof of the Western Union transfer document.

That photo will include all the details they need to drain the money.

The idea that they have to cross the country to show the apartment is dopey. Anyone who owns Paris apartments has a local real estate agent or building management to handle emergencies like broken/leaking toilets. The local person would be the one showing the apartment.

Anytime a seller tries to force you into a particular payment method, resist absolutely. I would be like "I prefer Paypal, but I'll toss in an extra 2% to cover Paypal fees." And then step back and watch their reaction. If they work really hard to convince me to use WU, that's a scammer. A real landlord would either accept it cheerfully, or tell me to buzz off.

Now let's take a sidebar and talk about an interesting aspect of how this confidence game works, and why it can be so powerful.

I do not see where I could lose the money here; I am not familiar with Western Union transfers

So yeah. A con game is all about confidence. You think that surely there must be controls in place to protect you, and that makes sense. But the inputs that make you think that are all coming from the scammer. It's insidious how easily a reasonable person can be tricked.

They didn't find a mark in you obviously, but think about how cleverly they got their foot in the door, as it were. We tend to underestimate scammers but they really are quite good at their job.

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    I'd tell you to buzz off for PayPal too. On the other hand if you didn't like money order I'd offer you check or cashiers check or even direct bank transfer. I'm not in Europe so I don't know how they prefer to handle person to person transfers at a distance.
    – Joshua
    Jan 9 at 22:54
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    Note that transfer to family member is dumb and bad and I'd advise anyone to stay well clear of it.
    – Joshua
    Jan 9 at 22:54
  • @Joshua The point is that you would tell him to buzz off because you're not a scammer. Not keep trying to convince him to use Western Union.
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 10 at 4:48
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    A real landlord has a bank account.
    – gerrit
    Jan 10 at 7:29
  • The argument seems to be using WU to prove that you have the funds available - Paypal, bank transfer etc. don't really demonstrate this. Jan 12 at 6:06
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There are several reasons why this is ill-advised and infeasible.

Navigating to the Western Union website, when inquiring about sending money, this warning pops up. Western Union explicitly says NOT to use their services for rental deposits or payments.

Do not use Western Union for rent deposits or rent payments

Next, for money transfers from within France: Western Union only allows very minor changes, such as correction for typos, when making a Receiver Name Change. (I think this varies by country, with more leniency in the US, as indicated by another answer.)

So, it would be impossible to do what the apartment owner asked you to do, i.e. initially using a relative's name as the Receiver. That part didn't make sense to me anyway!

URL for fr https://www.westernunion.com/fr/en/frequently-asked-questions/faq-send-money-online.html#Q1

Finally, Western Union is intended for transferring smaller amounts of money. Even if you were allowed to send 1500 Euros by Western Union (in France, the limit seems to be 1000 Euros per day typically), the fee would be 61 Euros. The apartment owner didn't mention whether he would pay the transfer fee, or if he would expect you to pay! It makes the rental price 4% greater.

WU transaction fee on 1500 Euros

These are reasons that the owner's proposed method of rental payment is ill-advised.

Most important of all: this is a scam. Someone who owns and rents an apartment in Paris but lives in the south of France will have sufficient assets to arrange for a local Parisian agent to show the apartment; renters need someone to alert in the event of any urgent, unexpected repairs needed, e.g. a water pipe bursts.

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    I really think all those green ticks in the WU page should be red crosses. Jan 10 at 13:52
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    @AndrewLeach They should be Unicode character U+1F6A9: 🚩 Jan 10 at 20:47
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All the answers here are basically right, and go on explaining how using Western Union is, aside from a massive red flag, not secure at all for this kind of transaction.

Most answers also mentioned, but only as a side note, that a property owner living far away from the property would always have an agent or a local person to take care of emergencies (or indeed visits from prospective renters).

Well, to me this is the first, biggest, and only red flag you should consider:

Any (supposed) property owner who give you a story (any story) as to why he (or an appointed representative) cannot be there and uses this to justify an unusual transaction method is trying to scam you, period!

Western Union sure adds to the red flag list, but even without Western Union being involved, the (owner cannot be present) scam is already widespread and scammers use a myriad of other arrangments to make you feel safe with the transaction method they propose, always remember the first red flag: real owners do not do that! The person you're talking to does not even own the property, he's only aspiring to own your deposit and disapear.

That is 100% valid in France, most western europe, and likely any country where property rental regulations makes owners responsible for some aspects of the property even when the property is rented out (like safe electrical setup, working heating system, ...)

Now there will be a few edge cases, where a legitimate (cheap) remote owner is trying to cut cost and do without an local agent. Well in these cases, even if the rental offer is actually legit, you would probably do yourself a favor not to enter a deal with them as they will probably be very difficult to deal with in the future (for any repair or property matter).

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I am not sure if you are French but this is of course a scam as others mentioned - the procedure is completely wild.

A few words from the French perspective

To start with, Western Union is basically an unknown institution in France. It is used only in some transfers to non-EU countries (to put it that way), as a matter of transferring money that is not traceable (think taxes, black market etc.).

Nobody in France will use it for transfers in France, not to mention anything related to renting, which is a highly regulated thing in France.

The landlord can request a guarantee which will be, by the contract, given back at the end of the rental. This is normal - whether you get it back or not is another story (after all this is free money for the landlord so they may do gymnastics to not give it back).

Following the Middle-Ages French Banking Tradition, this is usually in the form of a chèque de caution, which is actually a bank cheque (we still have these, alive and kicking).

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  • Transferring money abroad actually has a number of legitimate use cases and that is why companies like Western Union (or MoneyGram, Remitly, ...) do exist. E.g. here the French government is recommending Western Union for one such use case.
    – Jan
    Jan 11 at 15:42
  • The problem with Western Union is that you are giving away the money without anything tangible in return. OK if you can really trust the recipient, but not a good idea if you are dealing with strangers on the internet.
    – Jan
    Jan 11 at 15:45
  • @Jan sure, I never said that WU was shady or something. It is just that it is unknown to the general population in France as a financial operator. If one was renting a holiday home or something like that and someone told them "transfer money via WU", they would probably not understand what that means. In other countries WU is better known but not in France. In your link the ministry suggested WU because it is fast (and technically safe), as opposed to a wire transfer which would be the normal way to move money.
    – WoJ
    Jan 11 at 16:19
  • Western Union was little known in France for a long time because the national post office offered (still do) a equivalent service "Mandat Cash". This was limited to sending money to France, but it was trusted because backed by a government organisation. So only the few French people who had to tranfer money abroad knew about Western Union and the like. That said, @WoJ is right in saying that if a French person is asked to send money to someone else, in France, through Western Union, he will probably find that immediately fishy as it is absolutely not the norm.
    – Hoki
    Jan 11 at 16:57

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