In general, always follow the old adage that “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Recently, through documented as well as empirical experience, rental scams in Barcelona are on the rise. This trend, of course, is not exclusive to Barcelona, but it is among the highest level of scams around Europe.
There are many types of scams, but in general, the following are the most common:
- You see the apartments in photos on some web-age and everything looks and sounds great. However, when you request to see the apartment, you will be told that you can see the building and neighborhood on your own, or even with the agent, but since the owners live far away they require a refundable deposit to send you the key. Then you, at your own leisure, can look at the apartment; keys in hand.
On the face of it, this looks like an obvious scam, but some people do fall for this type of fraud. For those who don’t, some scammers have made it seem more realistic by instructing you to wire “YOURSELF” the deposit through Western Union and simply provide proof of this to them, which would seem sincere. However, they will use someone in a different Western Union office to impersonate you, using fake identification, and collect the funds. The bottom line is never pay anything upfront!
- You get to see the apartment, not just in photos but also by performing a walkthrough and then decide to rent the place. You sign the contract with the “owner” and/or “agent” and are ready to move in. At this point or, even worse, after living there for a while and paying rent, you find out that the person stating to be the owner is not. The scam owner or agent has access to the place because they know the owners are away for a while because the apartment was a bank foreclosure because they are trying to illegally sublet or through other methods.
One way to avoid this scam is to go through a reputable rental agency, which there are plenty of. Otherwise, request official identification, plus proof of ownership, such as property title and/or mortgage statement. Also, if there is a porter in the building, which is rather common, you can ask them if they know the owner. Additionally, you can talk to another tenant and simply start by asking them if it is a quiet and safe building to break the ice.
- Unfortunately, as the saying goes, sometimes “desperate times do call for desperate measures.” Although less common, there are property owners, who, when faced with losing their homes to foreclosure, might try to save their home and/or make some money on their way out, by renting out their apartments when they are having trouble paying the mortgage. Though this situation is not illegal per se since the owners still have possession of the property in question, you run the risk of losing the apartment should it get repossessed and/or because some of the later rent payments will be going to someone who is no longer the owner.
This scam occurs much less often, plus it is difficult to prove, since you would have to look at the owner’s finances to ensure they are current on their mortgage payments, which, of course, is getting into the delicate issue of privacy. However, you can go with your “gut feeling” and decide how to proceed.
Steps to take in order to avoid becoming a scam victim:
- Never pay any money upfront. Not even to hold the apartment, unless the owner or agent has proven they are authorized to rent the apartment to you.
- Although you might have to pay a month’s worth of rent to an agent, consider using a professional to find you an apartment, as well as to take care of the contractual process. That said, it is OK to try and save money by renting directly from the owner, but do have someone with you who is more experienced, as well as check the owner’s or agent’s authorization to rent.
- Follow simple verification steps, such as
- check the email address to make sure it matches the agency they represent and/or the owner’s name;
- check the language of the email, such as spelling, colloquial terms and so on, since many scams originate in other countries; and
- look closely at the pictures. If the ad photos look like something out of architectural digest, and the rent is really affordable, then it probably is a scam.
- Make sure to use PayPal or a bank transfer or any system which is traceable. Never pay cash!
- Compare prices with other ads, friends you might know, or through verifiable online data. Because, once again, if the ad, rental fee, conditions, etc. seem too good to be true, then it is safe to say that it is.
If you do fall prey to a scam:
- Contact the police or “guardia civil” and file a report. You may need to get a translator or ask a Spanish-speaking friend to accompany you.
- If you did use PayPal or a bank transfer or some sort of payment platform, contact them to see if there is a chance to reverse the payment. Although the likelihood is not high, it is worth a shot. Personally, I have been able to reverse smaller charges (i.e. less than 100€.)
Mind you, this article is not meant to scare you or put you in a defensive and/or negative mood as you try to find a place to live, but rather to provide you with some advice based on personal and professional experience, as well as on empirical data. And, as a piece of good news, scams are only part of a small percentage of transactions. So go out there with a positive attitude and make sure the rental process feels right!