A few months ago my landlord came to me and informed me that he had a family emergency and he needed my apartment as a place for one of his relatives to live. When I first moved in 18 months ago he did mention this possibility and it was part of our gentlemen’s agreement that took the place of a formal legal contract. This was back in November, and he told me that he needed the apartment in March, so there did not seem to be too much of a panic about finding a new place to live. I didn’t do anything about it before Christmas, figuring that if I devoted January and February just to this task I would surely find a decent place. So I came back to Vienna after Christmas, ready to jump in to the thankless world of apartment hunting. After six weeks of hunting, it is mostly at an end, but there are a few lessons to be learned.

Apartment hunting is a horrible process because the time and effort you put into the task is  completely unrelated to success or failure. It is often complete luck that brings a decent apartment, in a decent area, for a decent price. You could be searching for weeks for a place, or on your first day you could be the first to visit an apartment that you then immediately rent. It is not random, but it is a process where hard work and diligence does not account for much. When it happens, it happens- until then, you just have to keep searching in the hope that it will eventually all be worth it.

After a day or two it becomes easier to navigate all the different listing websites and an ad of interest can be identified just by skimming the webpage. Every now and again though, you see an offer that seems just a bit too good to be true, just a few more metres squared than you could reasonably expect for the price, just a few more features that you could possibly expect to be included in the price. The photos are nice, the apartment nicely decorated, and comes fully furnished. It does seems just a bit too good to be true, but it’s been a week of fruitless searching now so you reply to the ad anyway and hope for the best. You get back a story of a nice, trusting person that above all else wants a nice, trusting person to occupy the apartment that they have available to rent. They liked your email and can tell that you also are a nice, trusting person and therefore want to let you rent the apartment. One small problem is that they are currently out of the country with the only set of keys for the apartment, and this is an issue that needs to be resolved. However, since both parties are trustworthy people, this shouldn’t be an issue at all.

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This is the general form of what I now recognise as The Keys Scam. The solution to the problem, naturally, is for the prospective renter to send a small cash deposit (€500) via an internationally recognised yet fundamentally untraceable cash delivery service (Western Union). Once the deposit is received, the keys will be sent via UPS to the renter, and then he or she may move in to the apartment, knowing that the sign of trust he or she showed by sending the money was reciprocated. To spoil the ending: only the first part of this exchange actually takes place, as once the funds are withdrawn from Western Union, the owner of the apartment will never be heard from again. To spoil another possible ending, no I have not fallen for this scam. I also hope no one reading has, as often I wonder who actually could be fooled by something like this. Always the pictures that are attached to these ads look like hotel rooms. Such as that one pictured above, which I got from a Craigslist Vienna listing, posted this morning (this link will not last the week!!). A quick drag-and-drop into Google Image search confirms it is from a hotel in Rome. Or Oxford. Or Scotland. But certainly not Vienna.

I first came into contact with The Keys Scam when I first moved to Vienna in January 2011, while searching for an apartment on Craigslist. Knowing little about the rental market, I thought nothing of the fictitious pictures on the fake properties, and replied to the ads. What immediately struck me in the follow-up emails was how much the alleged owner talked about themselves. In all my years of renting rooms and apartment-hunting, this had never been a feature of any contact I had with a prospective landlord. Usually it was all about me and when I could come to view the place and basically audition for the part of his tenant.

In all Keys Scams emails, you will get a compact personal history of the person you will soon be giving money to on a monthly basis, in less than one hundred words. They say things about themselves, then suddenly they are very interested in YOU: their potential houseguest, and wonder if you are a decent person, often with a list of questions about marital status and children you may have, as well as requests for photocopies of passports and driving licences. The scam is simple: the scammer by providing information about themselves is established as a person above reproach, then goes on the offensive with the double whammy of questioning the integrity of the other party, as well as demanding official documents as proof of identity. This is a classic confidence trick, or ‘con’. The difference here is that traditionally con artists are face-to-face with their prey and have a natural talent for convincing people that they are who they say they are, and therefore gain their trust.

What I have always found interesting about these emails is what the ‘owner’ has to say about herself (I use ‘her’ here because generally this owner pretends to be or is a woman). She has a short amount of space in an email to establish trust with me, before she can take the trick to the next level and confuse me by questioning my own integrity.  Therefore this personal history section of the email is her sales pitch, a make-or-break piece of her livelihood. She has to hook me in the first paragraph, or else all is lost. These hundred words of personal history are the set-up to the whole scam. What is most interesting in reading these is that she probably isn’t stupid, and has researched what people find trustworthy in a person. Therefore by analysing these brief introductory statements of scam artists we can actually see a mirror of our own take on why we would trust a person that we have never met before.

From the 16 (I said I found them interesting!) emails I have received from Key Scammers, the one overwhelming piece of data that comes through is that, as hinted to previously: we are more likely to trust a woman. They also talk a lot about their job, which is often in a multinational organisation such as the UN. If it isn’t, it is in a field which requires high levels of education. In all cases, recent career advancement has required a move abroad, often to London or Africa (which excuses the UK or Nigerian contact number they will subsequently provide). A few make reference to family members, such as the recent death of a parent, which I guess is intended to extract sympathy and/or empathy. What I take from this is that scammers think we are more likely to trust a highly educated woman who is so important that she has been moved abroad by her employer. If she has a good job she is trustworthy, as a large organisation trusts her and values her input. If the UN runs the world, and they trust her, shouldn’t I?

All of this information looks very stupid when written down like this, however these scammers would not provide this information unless they knew it could help to establish some trust with people they wish to extract money from. If this scam was done in person, with physical contact, I am sure this introductory trust establishment would be entirely based on the confidence, charm and charisma of the scammer themselves, and would not appear like anything as obvious as what I have described above. That profession however requires much skill and training, as with personal contact comes also much risk. A scammer identified in person can be punished. In the age of the internet, and classified listing sites open for all, free of charge, anonymously, there are no risks whatsoever to con artists. They never have to set foot in the country where they can be prosecuted for fraud. Collecting money from Western Union is not a crime, anywhere. If a sales pitch doesn’t work, they can refine it and post it on another site, in another city, for a different audience. I really don’t like these scammers when I am looking for an apartment, as they raise false hope about the possibility of getting a decent apartment at the end of your search. However, while writing this I have come to the conclusion that if they can convince someone to give them a few hundred euro based on what they say about themselves in one hundred words…. don’t they deserve it? A person may be desperate for an apartment, yes, and the photos a scammer provides may be very enticing. But to convince someone to part with a few hundred Euro based purely on trust, trust which is gleaned from another just explaining a few choice bits of information about themselves? If someone can do that, it is money earned, not scammed.

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