Who is That Man and Where is He?
These two simple questions can be your nightmare.
Israel is a small country with many “secrets”, many people not willing to handle information and others “playing the secret service game”.
A few days ago I called a landlord who was giving a “hard time” to his tenant, a new immigrant. I started my conversation with a regular “Shalom Greeting” but the other side said nothing. I was talking to the walls. I didn’t give up and asked to speak to Mr. Doe just to learn that the answer to this simple request was: “Yes”. Again I asked is this Mr. Doe? The man answered me by asking: “why”?
It was clear that this person did not want to speak to me. He was trying to understand if I was a friend or foe. It took me three minutes to find out that this person was Mr. Doe. The only clear message in his “conversation” was that he had no intentions of reaching any agreement! We will meet in court where he can be as secretive as he pleases and say absolutely nothing if he wants (and lose the case).
Why do I have to know this man?
Mrs. Smith was looking to rent an apartment when she met Mr. Charming, a real estate agent “working from a secret office” (probably from home). Mr. Charming presented himself as a real estate agent for a “large company” (again – secretive).
Mrs. Smith was under pressure; she needed an apartment immediately. Therefore she signed “a contract” with Mr. Charming in which she was to pay him a month’s worth of rent if he could find her an affordable and good apartment.
Mr. Charming showed her a few apartments in the greater Tel Aviv area that were all like “dumps” (some were simply unlivable), until he finally found her a “dream place” with affordable rent.
Mr. Charming made an appointment with the landlord; after a tense meeting a contract was issued. Mrs. Smith was to receive the keys in 10 days, at which time the present tenant was to have vacated the premises according to the promise of Mr. Charming and the landlord.
The next day Mr. Charming called again and made an appointment with Mrs. Smith in order to be paid for his services. She met him, paid him and even received a receipt.
Ten days passed and nothing happened. Mrs. Smith called Mr. Charming but he would not answer her phone calls. She suddenly realized that she didn’t have the landlord’s phone number. Now very worried she went to the apartment and was very surprised when the door opened and a young man and his wife asked how could they help her.
It took her like thunder when she discovered that this couple were the real landlords – they are the owners of the apartment and they had never heard of Mr. Charming or any other person who could possibly be a landlord!
At the police station Mrs. Smith learned that this is a well-known “scam”. Someone poses as an agent, they break into an apartment, copy the keys, show the apartment to a few people (mostly new immigrants or foreign workers), and after making a good deal of money they disappear never to be seen again.
What can you do to prevent these scams? I will give you some guidelines but you should know that the best defense is common sense.
Why MUST I know that man?
David, his wife and a child with special needs came from South Africa and needed a place to stay before making a decision on where to live. For this purpose they chose to temporarily rent a small apartment in a good neighborhood in Jerusalem.
One can find many real agents on the Internet as Mr. David did. He found an agency subletting short term rentals. It was more expensive but the pictures looked good and the location was the best.
Mr. David wired the money after negotiations. They were very excited when they arrived at the apartment; but to his dismay he found the apartment going through “renovations”. Handymen were still working, the place was in bad shape and the smell was terrible. They moved into a hotel!
To make a long story short, we represented Mr. David in a two-year case where damages were relatively small, less than $ 5000, but the complications in the case where extensive.
Mr. David had hired a real estate agent who was not to be found when things got ugly. All we had was a website and a phone number where we could just leave a message. This agent had a partner who was not in Israel, or at least was going back and forth very often making it hard to locate and serve her.
The evidence we had was mostly emails. Her lawyer was an inexperienced, emotional new immigrant himself. This is what we lawyers call a “disaster case”. We won in the end but could Mr. David have done better? The answer is yes!
Mr. David learned his lessons and I want to share some with you here:
In a transaction done through the Internet the best way to pay is by a credit card. You will have 90 days to cancel – enough time to be sure you get what you paid for.
Do not do any real estate business with “sites on the Internet” especially if the company is not a well-known one. If the company appears to be more like a “one man show”, do not hesitate to ask for a copy of his/her ID and/or passport.
Ask for an address you can check to make sure it is real. Email addresses won’t help you. You should be looking for a real person at a verifiable address.
Names are fine but you need more than a name. Try for example a bank account in his name. If the person asks you to deposit the money in a third party account, refuse!
Never pay the entire amount up front. If the person is “very anxious” it could be a bad sign – watch out.
Pressure on you is another bad sign. How many times have I heard new immigrants telling me that “that specific place was to be rented the very next day”, “I must sign today” etc. It is always the same story. The real estate agent or the landlord was putting on pressure – don’t fall for it. If you miss the opportunity, many others will appear but mostly you are just safeguarding yourself. Take no chances!
A memorandum is another bad sign. Do not ever sign one; it does not matter how “simple or inoffensive” it may look. A memorandum is a contract and never in your best interest.
Consult with a lawyer. It won’t cost you anything just to ask some questions and remember, we will be happy to assist you.