My Landlord the Ghost

A property scam in Hong Kong (and the world) conducted via e-mail. A cross-post with Rob McGovern.

This flat had it all: a spacious living room, designer furniture, a dining table with zebra-print high-backed chairs, a beautiful wrought-iron bed aglow in mood lighting, a gleaming kitchen and a stylish foyer. There’s even a PlayStation 3. All yours for HK$10,000.

Anyone who’s gone through the rigors of finding an apartment in Hong Kong knows this is too good to be true.

On Hong Kong Island and even Kowloon, the best that HK$10,000 can get you is a tiny studio (with paint and fixtures intact, and furniture made past the turn of the millennium, if you’re lucky) or a cramped one-bedroom (if you’re even luckier).

As subs who idly browse for apartments do, Rob and I got to wondering whether anyone has fallen for this – and just who were behind these deals. (And what if the flats turned out to be real? An e-mail of interest couldn’t hurt!)

The introduction

We focused on two ads that repeatedly appeared on flat listings on both Craigslist Hong Kong and Kijiji, another classifieds site that became a subsidiary of eBay. (Kijiji has a pop-up on its site warning users of potential scams.)

Enter Benoit George and Henri Hugo Caron, our prospective landlords. After a cursory e-mail of inquiry, they sent what read like an auto-reply.

We got the standard MO: they are abroad with their wives/fiancees and have the keys. But they don’t want to see such a good property go to waste. They are simply looking for the right tenant who will keep the place clean and send them regular pictures of the property to make sure it is well cared for. If you agree to the lease agreement and the price, they’ll post the keys to you. Stay as long as you want.

And no, you can’t view the apartment first.

It’s not their fault; it wasn’t intentional. Henri claims he had tried to look for a local agent but couldn’t find one. Rob says Benoit skirted the issue and pushed the lease forward.

But they understand your concerns. So Henri recommends: “Visit the location & the building of the apartment to enable you determine your interest because i know your concern regarding to the inspection.”

The lease

If this deranged negotiation hasn’t deterred anyone yet, and one is simply willing to trust a complete stranger who obviously can’t string a proper sentence together, well, it gets more interesting.

Sounding eager and desperate, I ask how I can wrap things up. Henri sends over a lease agreement that might put a Chinese visa form to shame.

Apart from basic information, I have to disclose the details of my salary, my social security number, and the names of my immediate family as well as their addresses and contact information. There is even a line for “other sources of income.” (See the form here)

We send in mostly bogus information apart from our names. Rob writes down his mobile number, which will have interesting consequences later on.

They promise to respond within 24 hours after reviewing our application. Henri says he has a lawyer, named in the final lease agreement as Harsha Y. Tolani (online references show a student by that name in India), who will look my application over. She’s not that thorough.

Henri sends back an impressive lease document showing the tenancy rules. At the bottom are the signatures of his lawyer and himself, next to the coat of arms of Spain, where he is currently residing. As proof of identity for the wire transfer, he sends a copy of his Dutch passport.

The Netherlands consulate in Hong Kong did not reply to requests for help in verifying the passport.

Benoit, meanwhile, sends Rob a lease agreement haphazardly typed in a Word document. He also discloses his purported address, in Britain, which differed from the address he gave to facilitate the money transfer. Rob tried to contact the British police in the area, but nothing came of it.

The payment 

Both Henri and Benoit asked for one month’s rent and a deposit in the same amount. They asked to send it through  MoneyGram, a Dallas-based company that paid US$100 million to settle charges over wire fraud and money laundering violations in the United States.

On its website’s consumer protection section, MoneyGram details the various forms of wire fraud (there’s even a video game) — but property scams ain’t one of them. We reached out to various MoneyGram officers in Hong Kong and the US but got no response. As of this posting, about US$277 million has been lost to wire fraud, according to the firm.

Perhaps looking for a slice of this lucrative market, Benoit and Henri would follow up with us every few days, although their approaches differed. Where Benoit was brusque and aggressive (Rob described his voice from a phone call as “sinsiter and African-sounding – definitely not a native English speaker”), Henri seemed more even-handed and unfailingly polite.

In response to my written concerns that this was a scam, for example, Henri proposed I send the cash to a relative, just to verify I’ll make good on the transfer and so I learn to trust MoneyGram, before switching up the receipt name to his. Benoit was more of a “pay up, sucker” kind of guy.

The close

I started to wonder at this point if they knew we were joking, and if they knew we we were aware of the trap. As my colleague Dave Major pointed out, it would be interesting to find out who these people really were and why they were doing it — and how many they’ve fooled.

Based on their accents in brief phone calls, they were either Indian or Arab. Fleetingly, Henri would mention he was “stepping out for the evening” or “consulting with his wife” – maybe bits of a charade or actual signs of life beyond a computer.

Obviously they have the time and money to call international numbers. They have a system in terms of presenting their identities, home addresses, phone numbers and which properties halfway across the globe to “rent out”. (Google Maps, anyone?)

They are prolific, posting on many different listings (the picture at the top of this post, for example, shows up in Amsterdam, Sydney and others.) And the majority of the time, I think they know people are smart enough to smell a scam.

So we confronted them, with exceedingly slim hopes we could persuade them (Rob being just as direct as Benoit; me playing the victim asking for answers from Henri) to tell all.

And as we were probably expecting at the start, the trail went cold.

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