Swindlers are offering foreign students imaginary apartments for rent using false identities, addresses and other tricks of the trade. The police are all but powerless and urge people to stay vigilant as the scheme crosses more than one national border, ETV investigative journalism show "Pealtnägija" reported on Wednesday.
"Everything was fine. I had already shown pictures of the apartment I had found to my family and friends. I was happy and could not imagine what would happen next," French foreign student Manon Caplier told the show.
Bangladeshi citizen Ibrahim Aum, whose spouse studies at Tallinn University, said that he received an email from the apartment owner which included information, including photos. "They said they were out of Tallinn for a research project. But they promised to return in four or five days," Ibrahim said.
Manon and Ibrahim are just two examples of foreigners who came to Estonia to study and fell victim to real estate scams.
Head of the Kadriorg office of real estate brokers Uus Maa, professional realtor Margit Sild said that the scheme is nothing new. "It happens, and we have a few cases during each fall rental season. I've even heard of a case where an Estonian went to Finland through the Erasmus program and still fell victim to this kind of scheme. There was an international criminal organization behind it or something along those lines."
The scam starts on Facebook
Manon (20) plans to spend her third year of law school at the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) and started looking for a rental space in the capital back in June when she was still living in Lille, France.
Ibrahim (30) has been living in Tallinn for three years and defended his master's degree at the University of Tartu in spring. Because his wife was meant to start the master's program at Tallinn University in September, the family started looking for an apartment in August. Both Manon and Ibrahim advertised their search in the Erasmus student exchange program's Tallinn Facebook group.
Manon said she initially heard from a young woman who said that she knows someone in Tallinn whose apartment might interest her. "She gave me an email address and I developed a correspondence with the man who replied to my letter. He sent me a description, location and photographs of the apartment. It suited my needs and our communication was swift and polite. I received the contract and transferred a deposit for a month's rent to his bank account. We agreed to talk again in August to prepare for my arrival."
Ibrahim, like Manon, received word of a vacant apartment. "I replied to one of them. Because I was in a hurry, I glossed over details. I didn't have the time to research the people who recommended the apartment. Besides, the same approach had worked last time: I posted what I was looking for, got an offer back, went to see it and rented it. This time, I received the owner's email address from a person and wrote that I needed a place, asking for information and the price," he recalls.
In both cases, the renter claimed to be a foreigner too and temporarily out of Estonia which explains the use of electronic channels. Ibrahim was seemingly offered an apartment by Serb Nikola Simic, while Manon believed she was dealing with Hans Wilke from Germany – both are common names that produce hundreds of hits in search engines. Manon was even sent a document copy that was very likely obtained from an earlier victim of the scammers. One of the criminals' tactics included obtaining people's document copies, also in Estonia.
Real estate agent Margit Sild said that contact made on Facebook and Messenger is a sign of danger in itself. "It is highly suspicious if a person who has not seen the apartment or met the owner in person is asked to make a down payment," she emphasizes.
Renting an apartment in a building that doesn't exist
The apartments in question also make for a tale. Manon was offered a five-bedroom apartment at Sakala 13. No such building exists in Tallinn. Ibrahim was offered an apartment in the building at Koidu 83. Naturally, the valuable city center apartment is not owned by the aforementioned German.
While the apartment offered to Manon does not exist, the Koidu street apartment belongs to a 69-year-old former politician and entrepreneur who told "Pealtnägija" that they had no idea their property was being used in a scheme. The photos attached to the fake real estate ad did not depict the actual apartment and their origin remains unknown.
To add credibility to the whole affair, the victims were sent almost identical English rental contracts. The alleged renter told both Manon and Ibrahim the transaction would be handled by their lawyer. While in Manon's case a brief mention was the end of it, Ibrahim developed a correspondence with the fake lawyer and ended up transferring the money to what he believed was their account.
"Both the owner and their attorney promised that if I paid the deposit, the apartment would be reserved for me. I inquired about payment options and were given Estonian account details. I was sure everything was above board as it was an Estonian bank account and the payment order would serve as proof of deposit," Ibrahim said.
What the cons have in common is also what lies at the heart of the whole operation – a month's deposit for reserving the apartment. Manon paid €350 to a German's bank account in a Dutch bank, while Ibrahim transferred €400 to a fake lawyer's account in Swedbank Estonia.
Estonian bitcoin trader pulled in
There was also a surprise twist in Ibrahim's story in that the swindlers played a double game. He was told that the owner's lawyer was an Estonian called Kaspar who really owns a small IT business. Kaspar on the other hand was told that Ibrahim wanted to buy bitcoins from him. The two men were strung along until Ibrahim transferred €400 to Kaspar and while the details of the payment read "deposit for apartment" which should have raised a red flag, Kaspar nevertheless proceeded to transfer the sum's worth of bitcoins to the scheme's authors.
Ibrahim described the rental contract as unusual in that it lacked the renter's personal identification number that had always been there in past contracts. "I was suspicious. I showed the contract to my former landlord who promised to look into it. He contacted the bank account's Estonian owner who knew nothing about a real estate transaction. The Estonian claimed that I bought €400 worth of bitcoins from him instead. It left me in shock."
Kaspar who did not wish to appear on camera told "Pealtnägija" over the phone that he is not in cahoots with the con men and that his identity was misused as well. "I have done nothing of the sort to anyone on purpose in my life. I'm sorry it happened."
Random payment details are common in bitcoin transactions as traders have various reasons to hide their tracks, Kaspar says. Because we do not know whether the Estonian really is a well-meaning victim or participated in the scheme knowingly, "Pealtnägija" will not be releasing their full name.
"Owner" disappears after receiving deposit
Things ended abruptly for Manon as the owner of the apartment simply disappeared after she transferred the deposit.
"When I tried to get in touch with them again in August, I received no reply. At first, I thought they were busy or on vacation, but after a week or two, I became suspicious," Manon said, adding that she then thought of sending a friend who was already in Tallinn to go and see whether the apartment existed. "I tried to find it using Google Maps but had no success. My friend also failed to find the apartment. The building that was mentioned in the contract didn't exist. I realized I had fallen victim to a scam. I was so disappointed."
There are other victims of the scam in Tallinn. When Ibrahim realized he had been duped, he posted a summary of his ordeal in the Erasmus Facebook group where it had started. This caused several other members with similar experiences to come forward, while one person had already lost both a deposit and the first month's rent. Another managed to avoid losing money thanks to Ibrahim's warning. On the other hand, swindlers who used the group still had the audacity to threaten Ibrahim following his post.
"When I posted what had happened to me on Facebook, I received a letter from the fake lawyer telling me that if I didn't apologize and remove the post I would be sued and deported because they had my ID and that of my wife. I was shocked to be threatened by a lawyer who was not even a real lawyer. It was all very interesting," Ibrahim said, smiling.
Long arm of the law may not be that long
Ibrahim has filed a report of a criminal offense with the police, while Manon is planning to do the same. Unfortunately, because criminals use false identities and other types of feints in various countries, Ibrahim and Manon are likely in for another disappointment. Experts say that catching the perpetrators is very unlikely, especially in cases where the damage is small.
The police's main advice is prevention – do not pay anyone before running a background check and do not give strangers your document data that could be used to con new people.
The victims had to learn from their own mistakes. "It was a very good lesson for me. Do not trust anyone blindly, no matter how little time you have. Steps must be taken before paying someone. In the future, if I want to rent an apartment, I'm going to need to see it first. I'll pay when I have the keys in my hand, not before," Ibrahim said.
Manon said that if someone plans to move to another country, it makes sense to find a temporary place to stay first to be able to go and see apartments. "That is what I did when I finally came to Tallinn and found my current place which has a very nice and very real owner. It's better this way."
Advice from the police for avoiding falling victim to online scams
If you receive an offer that promises quick returns or aims to sell you a product that is otherwise hard to obtain, proceed with caution. If the seller is a stranger, rushes you into making a decision and seems too good to be true, chances are you are being conned. The important thing is to keep a cool head and take time to think about it.
Do not give strangers your ID card data, PIN numbers or other types of identification data, credit card photos etc. Do not be quick to enter your credit card number/internet bank access codes when prompted. The bank will never seek them in an email and usually has the information already. When in doubt, phone your bank and ask them if they collect credit card numbers/passwords over email.
Do not transfer the money before you've researched the company. Before committing to a monetary transaction either physically or online, use internet search engines (like Google or Neti) to look for information about the other side. It is often possible to find comments and hints by people who have fallen victim in the past. If there is information to suggest there have been problems with the other side, terminate the transaction and notify the police as well as the administrator of the portal. Always be mindful if the trader asks you to transfer the money to an individual's bank account.
Do not download and install programs that allow others to take over your computer (such as TeamViewer or AnyDesk) on behalf of persons you do not know.
If you receive a suspicious call, terminate it immediately, block the caller and report the call to the Police and Border Guard Board's (PPA) hotline 612 3000.
Do not agree to pay additional sums because "goods have become more expensive" or based on other such claims.
If you have suffered damage, turn to the police.
Portal administrators need to be notified of fraud. If you have not yet paid the money or the money is in a suspense account (reserved) and the payment has not gone through yet, notify the deposit holder (bank, payment operator) immediately. Cybercrimes can be reported at https://cyber.politsei.ee/.
Editor: Marcus Turovski