How I Became A Victim In This Elaborate NYC Apartment Scam

Huffington Post editor Sara Gates recalls the events that drew her in (and the warning signs she missed), which led to her being one of several victims in this modern and elaborate NYC apartment scam.
 
As we find ourselves in the midst of what is perhaps the biggest rental boom in history with no relief in sight, the opportunity to take advantage of urbanite renters who are desperate for a place to call home grows by the day. Two weeks ago as I sat down at my desk in the morning, my pod-mate asked if I’d seen the Huffington Post piece about the NYC craigslist scam.  
 
I flipped open my computer, prepared to read about another email scam involving a landlord-turned-missionary requesting security deposits wired to him in Africa. Instead, what I found was the story of Sara Gates, who was recently the target of an elaborate, new-age apartment scam scheme. I did some clicking and I found someone eerily similar to me: a street-smart, young professional, who writes for a living, loves the city, and who would never fall for the kind of apartment scheme I just described to you. (Heck, we even grew up in the same county.) “This very literally could have been me,” I thought. 
 
Written below, containing new information exclusive to HotPads, is Sara Gates’ account of being the victim of what is most-assuredly the most clever and elaborate apartment scheme this real estate company has encountered.  
 
It is my and Sara’s hope that by sharing her story, we can bring to light and educate others on what we believe is the new direction of apartment fraud in 2014. Please be sure to check out Sara’s tips for staying smart during your search process — you can not be too careful
 
Many thanks to Sara for sharing her story. 
— Joanna, Content Marketing Manager at HotPads
  

Several weeks ago, I was the victim of an elaborate con. I still kick myself over how I — and at least nine other 20-something women in Manhattan — could have fallen for a Craigslist apartment rental scam that netted two con artists more than $20,000.

The truth is the man and woman who orchestrated the terrible ruse knew that I was in a desperate situation, and used it to their advantage. While some have told me that there was no way I could have seen it coming and that I shouldn’t beat myself over this — Anyone could have fallen for it. They are professionals, and do this for a living. — there were some warning signs.

I wrote about my experience at length in a blog on The Huffington Post, but I’d like to go into further detail about how I uncovered what had happened to me, and then address the specific red flags that (still) make me feel a lurch in my stomach.

Forget run-of-the-mill rental ruses, like the ol’ ‘wire me the money and I’ll mail you the keys’. This is the scam of 2014, and I’d bet my last dollar that it’s only going to turn up more frequently.

Several days after I met with “Bryant” (the con pretending to be my new landlord) to sign the lease, turn over my money, and collect keys, I texted Kim to see if she would like to discuss logistics before I moved in later that month. I received no response, but brushed it off, imaging that she was probably busy and forgot to respond. I tried again the next day, but again received no response. At this point I started to worry, so I dropped by the apartment building to try the keys. Once I realized they worked, my fears were allayed, and I dove back into my busy day-to-day schedule, forgetting about Kim in the meantime. The following week — four days before I was set to move in — I tried giving Kim a call. Her phone was turned off, and so was Bryant’s. Now, it was time to panic.

After doing some extensive research and tracking down the actual landlord of the building, I learned that I had become the unwitting victim of a sophisticated con. As it turns out, Bryant had rented the apartment for a short-term stay, furnished it and enlisted a female partner to show it to prospective buyers. That’s why he was able to provide working keys to the residence. And with a move-in date set for two weeks later, Bryant and his partner ensured they had enough time to vacate the building before anyone came knocking.

Since the day I realized that the apartment was too good to be true, I’ve struggled to come to terms with the decisions I made. How did I just sign that sublease agreement and hand over two month’s rent in cash, when I felt the contract was suspicious? I focused on the dollar amount and what I could have used the money for — student loan payments, for example — and the entire situation made me feel ill.

While I’ve certainly learned an expensive lesson, I’ve also come to realize that I was in the midst of a frantic apartment search and was therefore more willing to ignore my gut instincts and make a rash choice. I desperately wanted the deal to be real, so I allowed myself to trust Kim and Bryant, believing I had lucked into a perfect situation at the exact time I needed one. Boy, was I wrong. Here are some of the red flags which, looking back on the situation, I wish I’d taken the time to investigate:

First red flag: Kim purposefully texted me the wrong address.

I first met Kim outside an apartment building on E. 9th St the evening of Thursday, Jan. 30. It turned out to be not her building. “This isn’t your address?” I questioned. “No,” she said, explaining that her mother told her never to give out her address to strangers. At the time, it seemed like a plausible explanation. However, a part of me still questioned why she wouldn’t want to give out her address, since I would see the number on the door anyway when I saw the apartment. Odd.

Second red flag: We spent very little time in the apartment, and finished discussing the specifics as we walked down the block.

We climbed the four flights of blue-carpeted stairs and Kim pulled out a key to open the door to No. 8. The apartment appeared lived in — at least to the casual observer. I often wonder whether the cabinets had been empty, had I cared to look. As we toured the furnished, railroad-style one-bedroom, she answered every question I threw at her in stride. The bed in the living room? That was for her sister who had been staying in town, but she would be happy to switch it out for a pull-out futon. The utilities? They would all be included. How could rent and utilities be included in such a low monthly price? She explained that she resigned the lease in October before she found out she would be traveling over the next year for her consulting job. Since she didn’t want to pay double rent — she said she also had a place in D.C., where her office is now — or give up the apartment, she was looking for another female who wouldn’t mind having a roommate a few days a month whenever she would be in town. The situation seemed ideal for both of us, and we continued talking as she led me out the door and down the block.

Third red flag: The contract

I met up with Michael Bryant, Kim’s landlord, the next day. He let me pick the location so I choose something close to my work, instead of at the apartment building, which would have been the better choice. We met at a coffee shop and he showed me his ID and then asked for mine before we reviewed the sub-lease agreement. I’m not familiar with sublease agreements, but with some experience interning at a law firm in high school — I should have know the document was suspect when I saw it. While the terms may have held water, most of the specifics were written in with Michael’s blue ballpoint pen as we sat at the Pret A Manger on Broadway and 12th. His name — not Kim’s — and the address of the apartment building were the only things that connected me and this document to the apartment. But, since Michael Bryant was a fake, so was this agreement.

Fourth red flag: The “landlord” handed over the keys before I gave him the money.

As soon as I signed the contract he handed over the keys. While I thought this odd at the time, since I hadn’t put down the first and last month’s rent as promised, there was an implied trust in the agreement.

Fifth red flag: The “landlord” told me to keep the original contract. There were no copies.

After we signed and he forked over the keys, Bryant told me to keep the contract. I questioned: “You don’t need a copy?” He eventually relented and asked me to scan and send it to him.

Sixth red flag: The “landlord” mentioned that cash was better than check, so he wouldn’t have to pay a fee.

The contract was signed, the keys were handed over and all that was left was the money. There was an issue, I said, I didn’t have a checkbook on me. Cash would be fine, he said, adding that a cash payment would allow him to avoid the fee. I felt this was incorrect, but overlooked it. At the time, I was not well-versed in how to rent an apartment to someone, so maybe there were some hidden fees. But, mostly, I didn’t want to miss out on the apartment, so I foolishly paid in cash.

Finally, here are Sara and our’s tips for protecting yourself when searching for an apartment in the digital age.

  • Search property records to ensure the person who is showing you an apartment has a legal right to that property.
  • Never pay in cash. Just don’t do it.
  • Ask to meet or interview other tenants in the building.
  • If you’re moving into an apartment with existing tenants, ask to see a piece of mail with your future roommate’s name / corresponding address.
  • Ask to see a copy of their USPS change of address from when they moved in.
  • Ask to see their credit history and/or criminal record. They ask for yours, why shouldn’t you get their’s?
  • Inquire about references (personal and / or work).
  • Run a thorough search for the unit (on HotPads, Craigslist, and Google) to see what pops up.