Journalists Felix Zeltner and Christina Horsten are the brains behind NYC12x12, a project in which they move to one New York City neighborhood each month, living in different areas of the city for one year. They’ll be blogging for Curbed during their journey, sharing insights and anecdotes from their travels through the five boroughs. Read on for Felix’s third dispatch, and check back for more insights from their NYC exploration.
An old man, wearing a baseball hat and a shirt with a hole in it, slowly opened the front door of a limestone building on a tree-lined Sunset Park street. We had rung seven different bells, and he was the only person who showed up.
“Do you know anyone by the name of John?” I asked. He raised his eyebrows as I pulled out my phone, showing him the rental agreement I’d received for 340 W 54th St, 11220 Brooklyn. “There is no West,” he said. “This is 54th Street. West 54th, maybe that’s in Coney Island, or in Manhattan.”
At that moment, I knew we were homeless. Our stuff was in a rental car parked down the street. We had fallen for a fake deal—a scam.
When we decided to move to a different NYC neighborhood every month this summer, the city seemed as if it was full of apartments. We moved to Long Island City in July, looked around on Listings Project, Airbnb and Craigslist. We went for a beautiful loft in Chinatown for August and an amazing studio in Harlem, with the nicest neighbors, for September.
We had approached the whole project with a lot of optimism—which, in retrospect, was fairly naïve. Airbnb alone seemed to be a bottomless reservoir of apartments. The worst that could happen, we thought, was that we would be fed up with moving and settle for a long-term rental apartment. We didn’t think about the possibility of actually ending up on the street with nowhere to go.
But then October approached, we were working day and night, and the city filled up. The few places we found—a studio in Midtown East, a one-bedroom in Chelsea, and a one-bedroom in Kips Bay—all fell through last-minute. Right before the end of the month, we spent a frantic weekend searching. Our Harlem subletter, who was already back in the city, generously stayed with a friend for a few days.
Airbnb, along with other short-term rental platforms, suddenly seemed to be completely harvested. All our friends were home, and all of their extra rooms rented out. It looked like everybody wanted to be in the city in October.
And in that moment, we became easy prey for scammers.
Abigal’s Airbnb offer looked solid, with real photos. When I made it to the address she provided, supposedly in a high-rise overlooking the FDR Drive, I learned there were three towers and three apartments with the number she had given to me. I rang each one, and found only surprised residents.
When I went back on Airbnb, Abigal’s listing was gone. I realized there had been several red flags: She wanted money before I had even seen or booked the apartment. An additional money request arrived from a seemingly fake email account with typos and a fake Airbnb logo. I thought I would just be smarter next time.
Shortly after, I found John’s Sunset Park listing. His email and phone were approved by the platform, and we started a friendly exchange. But when I tried to make a reservation, things got weird. Airbnb blocked my account, so John took me over to his listing on FlipKey, a portal by TripAdvisor. The troubles continued there, with FlipKey taking John’s listing down. So then, we went to PayPal. He sent his wife’s email which was connected to what he claimed was his business, an online pawn shop. The website, which has disappeared since, looked legit and showed his phone number.
Finally, I sent John $1,400 via PayPal; he emailed a rental agreement. I signed, he signed, and it seemed like we had a place. But when the money came back, I was too busy to notice. The day before we were supposed to move in, I got nervous. John had stopped answering my texts and wouldn’t pick up the phone.
On the way to Brooklyn, we discussed the chance of fraud but tried to stay optimistic. After all, we had a signed contract. We also had nowhere else to go.
When the friendly old man told us that there was no apartment, I texted John. This time, his typo-heavy reply came in a matter of seconds. He accused me of fraud, saying “Whatever game u ran try it on someone else. Or feel free to go to police and try to make lease hold.” Then he went off the radar.
Homeless, we turned back to where we started from: the house in Long Island City. Our friend Amol took us in. When we told him what happened, he showed us a story about a notorious scammer in The New Yorker. The tactics listed were the same ones we had just experienced first-hand:
“The Hold-Off”: The scammer remains chatty by email and text, but is absent about details like obtaining keys and doesn’t answer the phone.
“The Blockout”: Days before the move-in, the conversation becomes weird or goes silent.
And, the final gambit:
“I’m The True Victim Here”: The scammer actually believes, or make his victims believe, that he is the victim and that they are to blame for what happened.
I called Airbnb, FlipKey and PayPal, only to find that they had outsmarted me; John had been kicked off all three platforms. So I asked how to avoid being scammed in the future. “Contact someone who has great reviews, more than ten, who has a good response rate,” Airbnb told me. “And check if their account has been verified not only by phone and email, but also by passport, ID and online ID.“ Lesson learned.
Luckily, we didn’t lose any money, but the experience has taught us a few things. First, never look for a place in a rush. Second, never rent a place before speaking to the person who rents it in person or at least via Skype. Third, if at all possible, rent from friends or people that were recommended to you. Fourth, if you have to rent through a platform, look closely at the reviews and at the renter’s account. Call the platform if you aren’t sure. And regarding payments, trust the platforms. They are your insurers. Don’t let somebody take you away from them for whatever reason.
The night we crashed at Amol’s, we heard a knock on the door. “Would you like to eat pizza with us?,” his daughter asked. It felt like home again.
“You know, apartment 2W is available,” Amol told us at the pizza party. “You could just rent it.” We thought about it for a minute. This definitely felt like rock bottom of the project so far and the prospect of a real place was tempting. But then we thought about all the amazing neighborhoods we’ve yet to discover, and decided against it. We stayed in 2W until the end of October—but we already have Williamsburg lined up for November.
Now, we would like to hear your advice. What are your tactics to avoid scams? What have you learned by renting online? Comment here or contact us through our website.