Fears, doubts, inspirations and pink Cadillacs

I may have made some mistakes. But isn’t there some sort of saying about life being about taking risks, making a mess of things, and somehow coming out on top – or happier – or wiser – or some shit like that? If not, such a saying should exist.

I was in the U.S. for a couple of months a little while ago. I traveled quite a bit while there, getting to see lots (though not all) of the important people, including my Mom. It was at my Mom’s when I started to have some doubts about returning to Amsterdam. In a safe refuge where I was fed, emotionally supported, and understood the language spoken, I wondered if it was time to close the chapter and wrap up the fantasy of living in the Netherlands.Perhaps all signs were directing me back to a stable and U.S.-based reality.

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Con: not having a home

One of the major disadvantages to this quirky lifestyle I’ve created for myself is home instability.  When everything else is up in the air, not having a stable address just might be the worst part.  It’s probably the thing that would deter most people from choosing this route.  And I don’t blame them.

Occasionally I look back on some of my former apartments and try to remember what it felt like to be at home.  Places where I could have stayed for much longer.  But they rarely kept me for more than 3 years.  There was the cute, oddly-shaped Oakland  apartment with the red door.  I had a sliver of a view of Lake Merritt, a private entrance, and a back door, all of which made me think I was doing something.  In Philadelphia I had the nicest and cheapest (in retrospect) apartment, with a huge porch, two floors, a gigantic bedroom, and a view of one of my favorite Ethiopian restaurants.  Forget about everything else that may have been upsetting me at those times…they were the good ‘ole days!  I had a lease, some keys, and immediate access to all of my belongings.

Today, well, not so much.   Continue reading

Black Girl Done Gone and Got Scammed

Warning: The following contains some appropriately vulgar language.

I’m not sure if this has come across in earlier posts. I’m not even sure I was clearly aware of it until earlier this happened. But I’m an idiot. If “idiot” offends you, feel free to refer to me as a dummy, foolish gal, stupid head, whatever you prefer.

Remember back when I almost got scammed when looking for an apartment in Amsterdam? Relying on online research led to nothing but mystery and heartache. I learned my lesson from that…or so I thought.

Immediately after I nailed down a place to live, which I’ll move into on February 1st, I set my sights on finding a place for my first couple of weeks in Amsterdam, during which time my Mom and her husband will be joining me. We were looking for a place with enough space for three people, ideally located in central Amsterdam. Hotels are great. But they’re pretty pricey. Especially considering that we’ll be staying for two weeks.

So, as I always do, I turned to the internet. I researched short-term rentals to find a number of websites advertising apartments throughout Europe – with most of the companies based in London. The system seemed to be that apartment owners work with agencies to rent their space out to vacationers. The agency does the leg-work, receiving a cut of the rent received by the owner. Sounds like a good idea. And it may actually happen.

I found a website with a cute place – two bedrooms, nice bathroom, centrally located. Comparing it to the other, similar websites, the prices were pretty much the same. So I was happy with this choice. I submitted an inquiry form, providing my name, email, and dates I would need the apartment. I received an email not too much later. The place was available. And after a bit of back and forth to clarify the cost, deposit, contract and payment process, I sent the deposit and 50% of the rental fee via bank wire transfer.

Receipt of payment and signed contract in hand, I checked this item off of my to-do list – until several days later when I received a message from the rental guy. He was sorry for the inconvenience, but the owner of the place changed her mind and now needed the full payment for the apartment in advance in order to hold the place for me. If I sent the remainder of the rent, it would confirm my reservation. No way. And what kind of business would be irresponsible enough the change the terms of an agreement so casually?

I told him I would take a refund. And I also wanted a refund for the $35 wire transfer fee. At the same time, I started researching other places to stay. Strangely, the website for my place was no longer working. But I found another one that also looked really good – same price. So as I was going back and forth with the first guy, I was making an arrangement to send a deposit to the second.

But now there was a problem. I couldn’t send the second deposit until I received the first deposit back. And the first guy was giving me problems. I was starting to worry. But the fog really started to lift when he told me his accounting department wanted to get the money to me as quickly as possible. And since wire transfers can take a few days, they would prefer to send it to my credit card. All I would need to do is send him my credit card information. Oh shit, goddamn motherfucking asshole.  At this point, I knew I had been scammed.  And not only that, he was trying everything he could think of to get as much money out of me as he possibly could.

So this goddamn motherfucking asshole thought I was dumb enough to pull out my credit card, send him all of my information, and expect to receive a deposit ?  I’m sure I was a perfect candidate for being »cleaned out: friendly, excited, bank account.  Yup – I guess I deserved it.

I’m thankful for one thing: the fact that I waited before sending money to scammer #2. His responses were eerily similar to scammer #1’s. And when I checked several days later, that site also no longer existed (though it had been up for a couple of weeks). So it’s clearly a thing. They’re not all necessarily the same person or working together. But they have at least established (and regulated) a clear process for scamming people.

My first action was to get in touch with my bank to see if there was even the slightest chance that they can track down the bank account I sent the money to and get it back for me.  But since people lose thousands of dollars everyday to assholes like this, my loss wasn’t likely to be an exception.  And sure enough, the bank reported back that the scammer’s account had insufficient funds to refund my money.

In spite of the crime that has clearly been committed, no one seems to care. I’ve reported it numerous times, in numerous ways, in numerous countries. No one even responds.

So there you have it. $850. Gone.

 

Apartment? Check.

After narrowly escaping my first European scam, I was fearful that my apartment search was going to be long and dirty. But it turns out that once again the universe is looking out for me. Well, the universe and a kind woman from the University of Amsterdam.

As you know, I’m taking my cat with me to Amsterdam. And this has been the primary reason I haven’t considered student housing to be an option. They don’t allow animals to live in dorms – that’s fair. Plus, the idea of living amongst a bunch of younger students and potentially sharing a bathroom with them makes me cringe. So when I received the form to fill out a request for student housing, I was hesitant.

I responded to the woman in the admissions and housing office (who incidentally is the same woman who helped me determine my dream apartment was a scam), asking if my cat would make me ineligible for student housing altogether. She responded in a kind, but not so hopeful way. Since the vast majority of student residences don’t allow animals, there would only be a slim chance I would find a place through the standard channels. But since she was familiar with other housing agencies (outside of the University’s primary network), she told me she would speak to some colleagues and see what she could find for me. In the meantime, she told me to fill out the housing form just to cover all of my bases.

UvA Confirmation (or Fulbright?)

I filled out the form, which was hosted on the same platform as the U.S. Fulbright application. That has no bearing on the rest of the story. I just thought it was strange that the applications looked so similar.

Anyway, the form asked for my preferences in rent and roommates. I said high rent and no roommate, hoping to end up with the classiest room they have in the pot. Pressed submit and knew it wouldn’t lead to anything.

A day or two later, my University friend asked if I would be interested in a two-room apartment on the east side of town. It would be in an old building – but “liveable.” It wasn’t a guarantee. But she might be able to get it for me if I was interested. Because I am a woman with standards, I asked a couple of questions before saying, “hell fucking yeah!” First of all, would this be a private room? And second, would I have to share a bathroom and/or kitchen? Her answers were “yes” and “no,” respectively. So I said, “hell fucking yeah!!”

Another day or two later my new best friend came back with confirmation that she was able to get me the two-room apartment. She included the address, which was followed by the initials HS. To explain, she added my favorite part of her email: “HS means that your apartment is on the ground floor so your cat has a little garden to play in.” I immediately wrote her back to accept the place.

Although I haven’t seen how this place looks on the inside, I imagine it’s pretty basic and not at all resembling my future dream home. What I do know is that it has a bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, and garden. I also know that the rent is cheap and that it’s not a scam. I’ll live there for a semester, which should give me plenty of time to figure out where I’ll live next. I think it’s an ideal scenario.

And thanks to modern, Google technology, I am at least able to see the place from the street. It has a red door.  That alone makes me very happy.

my future red door

UPDATE: a Scam Is Just a Scam

Thanks to all who provided input on the scam question.  The consensus is that it was a scam.  Although just barely, I’m pleased to say I avoided some major heartbreak here.

 

This morning I sent an email to the University, asking for advice on the situation.  I sent the address, the rent, the passport and the “proof of ownership” certificate.  Here’s the response:

I had a look at the attachments and googled the address, and I get the feeling that this deal is kind of dodgy. The whole house seems to be for sale: http://www.huislijn.nl/koopwoning/amsterdam/eerste-constantijn-huygensstraat_109_f47d00a6-cca0-4f8b-91a3-e043c617f078/overzicht.html and this website also tells us that the top 3 floors are rented at the moment but it doesn’t say if this situation will continue. And the proof of ownership looks very fake to me, but I could be wrong.

Mmhm.   I don’t think you’re wrong, Renee.  I don’t think you’re wrong at all.

 

Immediately after receiving this message from Amsterdam, I received this link from a friend (thanks MYC!):

http://santacruzhomebroker.com/santa-cruz-real-estate-blog/2009/01/

It provides almost an exact replica of the “proof of ownership” I received from my scammer.

 

And finally, I took a look at the advice on scams provided by Craigslist (not sure why I didn’t do this before).  One particular bullet point stood out from the rest:

3. Someone requests wire service payment via Western Union or MoneyGram:

  • Scam “bait” items include apartments, laptops, TVs, cell phones, tickets, and other high value items
  • Often claim that an MTCN or confirmation code is needed before he can withdraw your money – this is FALSE, once you’ve wired money, it is GONE.
  • Common countries currently include: Nigeria, Romania, United Kingdom, Ukraine, Spain, Italy, Netherlands – but could be anywhere
  • Apartment listing may be local, but landlord/owner is “travelling” or “relocating” and needs you to wire money to them abroad
  • Deal often seems too good to be true, price is too low, rent is below market, etc

 

So there you have it.  I feel like I just escaped an attacker.  Dirty, hurt, and unable to trust strangers.  But I’ll get back out there.  I still have to find myself a place to live.

A Scam Is Not a Scam Is a Scam

Last week I upgraded my apartment hunting from investigative research to active outreach. And already the scammers have spotted my optimistic innocence. Fortunately, I’m still jaded enough to see reality behind rainbows. Or maybe I’m just too jaded to appreciate the beauty of a rainbow. Honestly, I don’t know what’s what anymore.

Only a few rentals and sublets have begun advertising January availability. So as I comb through November and December move-in dates, my options are still limited. But scattered throughout the various sites are rentals for 2011. Beginning with craigslist, I started reaching out to several advertisers – mostly short-term, furnished sublets.

I didn’t receive any responses for a few days. But on Friday I finally received a response regarding a 1-bedroom for 600 euros (about $850). The price would be perfect – though surprisingly low. And based on the Google street view, the apartment’s location would be dreamy – around the corner from the park and a bike ride from the University. Based on the pictures, it’s super cute, inside and out.

 

The message I received indicated that the place is still available. She just wanted me to answer a few questions about myself, for fear of renting to another bad tenant. She said she’s working for a US-based shipping company, spending much of her time in Philadelphia. She also said a number of other things. But her English wasn’t clear enough for me to get everything. But I took the Philadelphia connection as a good sign.

I responded with my answers. And she wrote back within the hour. I had given her the impression that I would be a good tenant. Her lawyer (in the UK) also agreed that my application looked good. So they were ready to give me the keys to the apartment. Wait, what?

The deposit will be 600 euros. They want me to send this to the lawyer in order to receive the keys and the papers for the apartment. Nope, nope, nope. That’s shady. I told her I would need to see more information, her lease or proof of ownership, the lease she would want me to sign, proof of her id, her lawyer’s details, a blood sample, and her mother’s cell phone number. No way I’m sending any euros to some strangers from craigslist without some assurances in place.

She immediately came back with a copy of the lease I would sign (with my name already typed in), and scans of her passport (she’s Swedish) and her attorney’s passport (he’s British). Okay, that’s impressive. And with this proof of id, she indicated that as soon as I send the money for the deposit via Western Union, her lawyer would send everything to me. But even though I have scans of passports, how do I know these are real people? These could be fake passports. I’m still not comfortable. And Western Union?

I demanded to see proof that she has a right to rent this apartment. Her lease? The owner’s information? Something. And I refused to send the money via Western Union. It’s just like sending cash. No way. I offered to send a certified check once I was comfortable with the situation. At this point, I was confident that it was a scam. She was clearly trying to trick me and would have had me show up with all of my stuff, holding a mailbox key, trying to open an old couple’s front door. Since I was onto her scam, and coming back so intelligently and sharper than any of her previous victims, I didn’t expect her to respond.

A few hours later, she responded with a kind, though slightly more agitated tone. This time she explained that she owned the apartment with her husband. After his death, it became all hers. She attached the scan of a “Proof of Ownership” certificate, including the full address and official-looking signatures.  So now not only do I have two passports and a certificate, I have a sad story about a young woman’s dead husband. But how do I know this is a real certificate? And the husband could be the part of the story that gets someone like me (with a soft spot for dead people) to get up and go to Western Union. Am I falling into her trap?

I haven’t responded to this last message. I’m kind of out of rebuttals. I can’t think of anything else she could provide that would make me feel better. All the while, I’m wondering if I’m blowing my shot at living in a cute apartment, by myself, in a great location, with an affordable rent. Am I going to regret being so paranoid? Or will I end up 600 euros poorer, hating myself for not trusting my inner skeptic?

I’m sending a message to the University to get some advice. I’m also open to feedback from any of you on this. I’m at a frustrating loss on whether or not to proceed.