In two weeks’ time, Taylor* will be on the streets. It’s past midnight at his hostel, but the 30-year-old Australian lawyer, feeling overwhelmed and anxious, forces himself to copy-paste his overly happy, 100-word introduction to apply for nine more apartment listings. He mentions his full-time salary, smoke-free lifestyle and how his party days are well and truly over. Despite his ‘spray and pray’ approach, he’s left with few replies.
A few days later, he commences a lengthy email exchange with a well-spoken landlord who claims to be based in France, offering a well-priced rental contract on his one-room flat in Mitte. Exhausted from the search and pressed for time, Taylor wires him the €1000 Kaution (deposit) to secure the contract.
But his feeling of relief at having found a roof over his head doesn’t last long. His attempts to contact the landlord to arrange the key collection are met with radio silence. He follows up several times over the next few days before he finally realises the landlord is gone – and so is his money.
In 2021, 1184 house fraud cases were reported to Berlin’s police, up from 678 cases the previous year. These numbers are hardly surprising. Between 2010 and 2018, while the city’s population increased by 360,000, only 86,370 new homes were built. The rental market is further squeezed by the fact that 85 percent of Berlin’s population lives in rented accommodation. Since before the removal of the city’s Mietendeckel (rent cap) in 2021, prices have increased by 40 percent, and the city now ranks as the eighth most expensive in Europe for renting a one-bedroom apartment. The lack of proven ways to guarantee landlords’ identities exacerbates the issue.
Anyone looking for rented accommodation can become prey
The combination of these factors makes flat hunting in Berlin a thankless, desperate task and anyone looking for rented accommodation can become prey for groups of con artists and crooks looking to make easy money. Typically, they offer a too-good-to-be-true rental deal, a story on how they’re located away from Berlin, a professional-looking rental contract and – almost always – ask to send the Kaution before handing over the keys. Don’t be fooled if they’re on reputable sites like Immoscout, Immowelt or Wunderflats; they hunt there, too.
But how do they operate? Exberliner spoke to victims of rental scammers in the city to uncover some of their tricks, how they were affected and what we might learn from their experiences.
Nothing seemed off
When 27-year-old Gosia* decided to move from Poland to Berlin, she found a listing for a two-room flat for €500 in Kreuzkölln on Craigslist. The ‘landlord’ – let’s call her Sarah – sent her 12 photos of the property and a digital copy of her passport, explaining she was based in the UK but was renting out her flat in Berlin. Everything checked out.
Gosia, who had previously found and stayed in an apartment in Barcelona entirely remotely, didn’t suspect a thing. “In hindsight, it looks so stupid, but at the time, nothing was seemingly off,” she says. She sent a copy of her passport so that the landlord could draw up the rental contract, then transferred the agreed €1000 Kaution, expecting to receive the keys any day. But she never heard from Sarah again.
Outraged, Gosia found a glimmer of hope when she realised she could hunt down Sarah through social media, using the information on her passport. She found her on Facebook and sent her an aggressive message accusing her of stealing her money. Sarah’s response came as a total surprise. “It wasn’t her who had stolen my Kaution but another person – the actual scammer,” Gosia explains.
The scammer is still out there.
She found out that Sarah too had been similarly scammed and her identity had been used by the fraudster to deceive Gosia. There was a chance, Gosia realised, that she might be next. “I was shocked, scared and impressed all at the same time,” she says. She went to both the Polish and German police to invalidate her stolen passport.
Three years later, with the rental scam saga then a distant memory, Gosia was walking with her partner one afternoon when an Italian woman came up to her on a busy Kreuzberg street. “You’re the person who stole my rent. Give it back, you bitch!” she yelled. Mortified and feeling threatened, Gosia pleaded it wasn’t her, explaining in detail what had happened. She offered to go to the police together with the woman’s case but later found that nothing got solved. The scammer is still out there.
When he was 39 years old, electrician Matthew* moved to Berlin for a new role after living in other parts of Germany for over 20 years. He had successfully helped two colleagues find a flat in Berlin, so naturally, he was brimming with confidence. While browsing a Facebook group for apartments in Berlin he stumbled across a listing for a part-furnished, three-room apartment in Prenzlauer Berg for €800. “This is perfect,” he thought. At the viewing the next day, he was shown around by a polite, unassuming Turkish couple in their sixties. “It was well-lit, spacious and looked perfect for my family,” Matthew recalls.
It wasn’t long before they started discussing the contract. The couple told Matthew that, if he wanted to secure the apartment, he could pay half of the €1600 Kaution in cash on the spot and receive the keys. This felt reasonable to Matthew as the whole transaction was documented in the rental contract that they were drawing up right there in front of him. He paid €800 in cash. “It was all pretty legitimate,” Matthew recalls. “I’d inspected the apartment, I’d met the landlords and the contract looked good.”
I’d never suspect an elderly couple; it’s just not who I had in mind as a scammer!
Everything seemed perfect. The following day, Matthew returned to the Prenzlauer Berg apartment to drop off a few items. Loaded with bags, he tried to unlock the door, but the keys wouldn’t fit. He double-checked he was in the right building and on the right floor. He kept trying until he realised, on closer inspection, that the locks had been changed. Matthew called the Turkish couple but the line was disconnected.
Panicking, he reported what had happened to the police. They checked the rental contracts registered at that address and found no match. The identities on the rental agreement turned out to be fake too. Matthew says, “I’d never suspect an elderly couple; it’s just not who I had in mind as a scammer!”
Are we doomed?
These stories show that scams these days go beyond email exchanges, phone calls and even stereotypes. And as they get more sophisticated, it’s getting harder to spot them. Scammers no longer use dodgy Facebook profiles, suspiciously low prices or rental contracts with typos. They don’t even pressure you anymore: they give you the details of the fictional property, priced at market rates to feign legitimacy, and give you the time to think about it. With so much sophistication, how can you ever be certain? The short answer: you can’t. You can, however, conduct due diligence to significantly reduce the chances.
HOW TO AVOID A SCAM
Use an agency or property manager for your search
If you’re new to Berlin and feel intimidated, skip the online search and hire an agency to do the work. It could be more expensive initially, but you’re likely paying for a stress-free and smoother experience.
Have a ‘scam’ checklist of questions at hand
Be procedural and ask things like: is the landlord unavailable to meet in person? Does the rental contract have errors? Am I being asked to make a non-traceable payment? Am I being asked to communicate off centralised platforms? Keep your scam radar in check.
If it’s too good to be true, it probably is
Affordable rent in a popular area, your application was selected super fast, you’re not asked to verify yourself and the Kaution is just a simple bank transfer? If you let your emotions take over and ignore the signs, you could be the latest victim.
Give yourself as much time as possible to look
Being pressed for time never helps good decision-making. You’ll be potentially blinded by the glowing listings that scream red flags, but you won’t (or won’t want to) see them when you’re desperate.
Use the internet to your advantage
Somewhere out there, with some luck, you may find someone else posting about a similar landlord, name or email address that you’re dealing with or even a similar tactic. If this is the case – run.
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