The rental market scheme covered by "Pealtnägija" last Wednesday is definitely international and has been going on for years, feedback from a young Estonian woman who was conned in Italy in 2018 reveals.
"Pealtnägija" told the story of how swindlers rent fictitious apartments to foreign students in Estonia using false identities, addresses, photographs, contracts and other tricks of the trade. The program heard from Frenchwoman Manon and Ibrahim from Bangladesh who were conned out of deposits for what seemed to be apartments in Tallinn's city center.
The editorial was contacted by Estonian Kadri who was shocked to discover the scheme was the same she fell victim to in late 2018 when she and her classmates were looking for a rental apartment in Naples. The perpetrators were using the same apartment photos that later attracted foreign students in Tallinn.
Thorough contract seemed trustworthy
"We had plans to spend the spring of 2019 as foreign exchange students in Naples, Italy. Unfortunately, we set about looking for an apartment too optimistically and too soon in late 2018," Kadri recalls. She said that she posted she was looking for an apartment in several Facebook groups.
A seemingly well-meaning girl reacted to Kadri's post in the Naples Erasmus group and suggested a five-room apartment she was renting with another young woman. "She gave me the so-called owner's contact information. I naively asked whether the owner was trustworthy and, of course, I was told that they were," Kadri said.
She contacted the alleged owner of the apartment and the latter sent Kadri what was allegedly a copy of their ID. The Estonian woman believes it must have belonged to a former victim. The fake owner introduced themselves as an Italian tour guide called Pietrona.
"Their letter included photographs of the apartment that were the ones 'Pealtnägija' had featured. It also came with a very thorough rental contract that I had a lawyer look at. They also believed that everything seemed fair and square," Kadri said. She added that everything about the proceedings seemed legitimate and above board.
The fake owner even asked Kadri and her friends to forward a letter of recommendation from their current landlord – what a clever trick to inspire trust. The criminals also asked the young women for their parents' contact information.
"What seemed the most suspicious to me was that we were asked to transfer the deposit to a Norwegian bank. At the same time, many people have accounts in foreign banks," Kadri said.
The women transferred their deposits of €380 each in late November. "Unfortunately, we feared no evil then and were not in touch with the owner before we had to move. I wrote to them just two days before going to Italy to inquire how we would get into the apartment," Kadri remembered. She received no reply. Kadri waited a day and then became suspicious.
Incident not investigated
"I tried writing the girl who had recommended the apartment. It turned out Facebook had closed her account for unsuitable conduct. I was feeling rather uncomfortable by then," she admitted, adding that she finally decided to run a more thorough background check on the girl. Kadri found a warning post in a German Erasmus group on Facebook and it turned out the same scheme had been used to con a lot of students. "I was sure it was a massive scheme already back then. I was shocked to discover it has also reached Estonia when I saw the episode of 'Pealtnägija'."
Kadri is glad they did not send their document copies to the criminals, while she still feels bad as the swindlers know their names and addresses and who knows how they can benefit form them.
"Pealtnägija" said last week that it is likely the scheme will go unsolved by the police as it crosses national borders in several different directions. That was also Kadri's experience.
"We turned to the police in Estonia and Italy after the incident, but our case was not processed," she said.
"The people behind the scam are obviously very smart and have gone to a great deal of trouble to make it look legitimate," the Estonian said.
She pointed out that even the "girl" who wrote her used appropriate slang words, while the alleged owner of the apartment wrote very polite and official-looking letters. "That is probably one of the reasons we were taken for fools."
Editor: Marcus Turovski