The real estate boom of recent years has turned out to be manna from heaven for fraudsters, who have exploited growing demand to literally rent or sell air. According to industry professionals, the culprits are common scammers operating primarily online through social media and classified ads.
In a case that recently came to light, a 40-year-old man “rented out” his house in Agia Paraskevi 31 times in three months, earning 130,000 euros from potential tenants. “As long as the real estate boom continues, there will be plenty of opportunities for fraudsters. Most cases relate to properties listed at a very low and tempting price. The criminals are usually after deposits. Their aim is to collect a significant amount of money and then disappear,” Attica Real Estate Brokers Association president Eleftherios Potamianos explained to To Vima.
But it’s not only the usual suspects that are cashing in; there are fake brokers, too, as well as the occasional bad apples within the real estate profession, who use unfair and unethical practices to expand their client base. “These are people who claim to be brokers, but aren’t really. Which is fraud, a criminal offense for which the law prescribes various penalties,” Hellenic Property Federation (POMIDA) president Stratos Paradias adds.
All of which raises the question of how the fraudsters operate exactly, what prospective buyers and tenants should look out for before putting down a deposit, and how they can spot the traps among the genuine ads. Two women who were defrauded in this way as they were house hunting spoke to To Vima.
“Too good to be true”
“I was a victim of fraud,” says Margarita Nikodima, a postgraduate student who was defrauded through a well-known classifieds website. When she was awarded a place on her course this summer, she immediately started looking for a place to live, mainly online given the time of year and the distance from her permanent residence. She quickly found a property which she describes as “too good to be true”: “It was furnished, new, and just 400 euros a month. I wanted to move in right away,” she says. Not wanting to miss out on the “opportunity,” she made contact immediately. “I sent a message and we began to correspond. We communicated exclusively by email. I wrote to and was answered by a lady in English, so I assumed she was from abroad. She filled me in about the house and its amenities, and told me the rent included the electricity and water bills. Then she asked for a 1,000 Euro deposit “up front” along with my full name, telephone number and how many years I intended to stay in the house. So she could have the contracts drawn up, she explained. At the same time, she informed me that she wanted the transaction to take place via a well-known short-term rental platform, as she considered it reliable.”
Which is when the first alarm bells began to ring. “You see, the ad was taken down while we were still corresponding, and her messages became a little automated.” The fraud ran its course and the alleged contract and a link for the payment of the money arrived. “I was sent a contract which didn’t mention my name anywhere, along with a link to the advertisement on the platform where I was supposed to book the house for a year—except it didn’t look entirely convincing. Because the URL was different from the URL of the website in question. Alarmed, I decided to do a reverse image search with the photos of the house and saw that it was an entirely fake ad.” Margarita’s next step was to contact the Cybercrime Unit: “They told me I should sue, but I didn’t pursue the matter further. It was an elaborate fraud.”
But what can the public do to protect themselves? According to Stratos Paradias, they should never pay a rent or deposit unless they are certain the person requesting the payments really is the owner of the house. He also suggests only dealing with official real estate agencies, which will never request their fees in advance. Genuine realtors get paid when the lease is signed and the house handed over, never before. It should be noted, however, that there are no legal restrictions on the amount paid to the owner as a guarantee, or the number of monthly payments they can request in advance. As a rule, though, it is one month.
“Someone just rented it”
Vaia Vatsina told To Vima about an unpleasant experience she had when she was looking for a house some time ago: “I was looking for a house to rent for months, and over that time I found some ads that interested me but turned out to be fake. I called the numbers on two of them and was answered in both cases by real estate agents who told me the houses had been rented just minutes before, even though the listings on the website seemed to be just hours old. Then they said they could send me a list of the other properties they had available for me to choose from. Another time, I went to take a look at a flat being advertised before calling, and ran into the… tenant outside. He told me he had no idea his apartment was up for rent again, and that he’d been living there for three years. When I called the phone number under the ad, I was told the same thing: that it had just been snapped up, but they’d be happy to send me a list of other properties.”