Wednesday, May 29, 2013

$400 of advice

This is the story of how we were conned out of over $400 by S. V. Kalinin (Калiнiн С.В.), a so-called "rental agency" here in Kharkov.

The players in this drama:
  • D and Katherine, a young and trusting expat couple
  • "Olga", the insidious rental agent working for S. V. Kalinin
  • "Mikhael"/"Dima", the accomplice who played both roles

The Short Story:

A local agency by the name of S. V. Kalinin claimed to offer apartments. We gave "Olga" and "Dima" 3500 uah ($430 USD) for first month's rent on an apartment. Although we showed up for 2 meetings with "Mikhael" (and wasted several hours waiting for him), by the end of the day there was no money, no apartment, only a text saying something along the lines of "Here are some phone numbers of landlords. This is what you paid the money for, suckers! Mwahahaha!"

Or, for my Russian readers: Мы ходили в агенство Калiнiн С.В. и там заплатили 3500 гр для первый месець арендная плата. Потом не было ни квартира, ни денег. Просто обман, шарлатанство.

The Long Story:

A quick bit of background: 

One year ago we were apartment hunting for the first time in Kharkov. Using Kharkov Estate we called about an apartment and reached an agent who offered to show us another apartment. She met us at the metro and brought us here, where the landlady was waiting. There was a lot of pressure that it must be decided now! and instead of sleeping on it, we signed the lease right then and there. The agent was very nervous, demanding payment before we signed the lease. We later realized she was a real agent but working off-the-clock and therefore a bit nervous about the whole thing. But all told, it worked out just fine.

Another time D was helping a colleague find an apartment and again an agent was involved. The agent was also really pushy about getting money upfront and there also was a lot of decide now pressure but again, it was a legitimate deal.

After these experiences, we assumed the rental scene in Ukraine was always like that.

What happened this time:

Via the recommendation of a friend, I checked the listings on this website. I found what appeared to be a nice apartment listed by its owner. We called the number and "Olga" entered the scene. Olga told us to go to пр. Правды 1 the next morning at 9:30 and call her.

9:30 AM: We arrive. We call Olga.

9:40 AM: A lanky guy with a serious tan shows up. This is "Dima". Cigarette in hand, he points to a basement office in a nearby building. We descend into the spider's web.

9:45 AM - 10:30 AM: Olga is trim, in her mid-20s or early 30s, with bangs and long brown hair. She sits in an absolutely bare office, the only decor being a giant map of Kharkov on the wall behind her. She turns the clunky old computer monitor and shows us another apartment, a more expensive one. It's so nice, she promises. She explains how the agency works: we pay first month's rent now and will be shown both the original apartment and the more expensive apartment. Should neither of the apartments meet our criteria, the money will be returned. The agency fee is paid by the apartment owner, not the renters. (As I write this I can see the sketchiness of this setup, but at the moment- remembering our past experience with payment-hungry agents- it didn't seem especially suspicious.)

We agree to go see the apartments. Olga bustles around filling out paperwork by hand (as is common here). She make a big show out of D's passport so that we feel like she suspects us of trying to pull a fast one. Olga hands over two legal documents in Ukrainian. She asks D to sign three times near the fancy stamp on the back. D and I look over the documents. It's pretty much Greek to me but D questions her about some information-providing clause in the agreement. Oh, don't worry about that, she says. It's nothing, just legal stuff. Just sign here and then go see the apartments and be sure to tell me right away if you want one of them.

D signs.

Olga goes to the phone and makes two very obvious phone calls to the "landlords", asking if we can come see the apartments now. In hindsight, she was probably just calling Dima, the lanky smoker outside, as he pretended to be the owner of each apartment.

10:30 AM: Thank you!, I tell Olga. It's the only thing I said to her that day and probably not the smartest thing I've ever done. She says nothing in response.

10:45 AM: We arrive at the arranged meeting spot and call "Mikhael", the agent who will be showing us the apartments....whose voice sounds awfully similar to that of Dima the smoker. Oh, so sorry, says Mikhael, it won't work right now. Let's meet again at 6 PM.

6 PM: We arrive again to the arranged meeting spot. No Mikhael. He answers the phone, I'm coming, I'm just about to leave to meet you!

6:30 PM: Anticipating a long wait, we've taken shelter from the heat in a cafe called Friends. Friends is dedicated to the TV show of the same name.

6:45 PM: After half an hour of studying Jennifer Anniston's hair, we call Mikhael again. On the way, be there soon!, he promises.

7:15 PM: Starting to get a very bad feeling. Mikhael-who-sounds-like-Dima no longer answers his phone. Olga, who was insistent that we call her that evening, no longer answers her phone either. Also, my brain is about to explode from hearing the Friends theme song over 2 billion times.

7:30 PM: Ninety minutes after the arranged meeting time, we realize there is no apartment. Walking home, we get a text message: You paid only for the information of the apartment owners and here it is, followed by 4 phone numbers. No one answers the numbers.

That evening: The internet offers up dozens of similar stories about the exact same agency- surprise, surprise, none other than our very own lovely Калинин С.В! Same thing: people paid first month's rent and then bam!, nothing but stalling tactics until that fateful text message.

It's definitely a financial setback. My income ranges between $300-$600 a month, so it will take all of June's wages to cover this loss. But it's more than that. It's a deep hurt that such conniving con artists exist. It's some serious shame and a feeling of stupidity for having been tricked so easily. It's now having second thoughts when it comes to trusting people.

Right now you might be thinking- complain! make a fuss! report them! fight it!

But it's Ukraine. Our hands our tied. The police don't care, there's no Better Business Bureau (ha!). The common reaction towards this or any other scam seems to be- it's decent society versus the scammers. Everyone is coming forward with stories of how they too have been burned here. There are no lawsuits, no payback (although now more than ever I really, really, really wish I knew someone in the mafia!)

And the nail in the coffin is that WE signed the paperwork and the paperwork backs it up. The agency is a legal one. A legal information-providing agency, that is. Everything Olga told us was a lie and is superseded by the paper document. It's hard to nitpick a legal document when you're sitting in an office taking up someone's "valuable" time by reading it and when you do make inquiries you're told everything is on the up and up. D and I have always taken people at face value and that's how scammers win- by assuming they've got your trust. That way they can promise you one thing while actually giving you another.

So we've got no legal recourse. They did send us a text message and that is apparently what costs $430 around these parts (whether the numbers are real or not). The hardest part to swallow is that they strung us on for so long- answering the phone with wait there, I'm on the way, I'll be there soon! Why? Why do that? It's mere taunting. It's like they do it just because they can. I really wanted to hunt them down, uh, follow up on this but D cut it off. They'll just continue the same charade, he says. They'll tell us to come back to the office to get the money, but the office will be closed when we get there. We'll call them again and they'll say something came up and we should return again tomorrow. And sadly, everyone agrees with him. The best thing to do now is just soldier on and try to forget.

Our $400 of advice when it comes to finding an apartment in Ukraine (mainly common sense but admit it, you never truly enforce these rules until you suffer the consequences of not following them):
  • Just because an apartment is offered by the owner, doesn't mean it's actually offered by the owner.
  • Apartments on the internet may not be as real as they appear.
  • Never give the money before getting the product, no matter how official the document looks. 
  •  Make sure you get the name of the agency BEFORE you visit it. Olga never mentioned anything about who she worked for until she suddenly whipped out the legal paperwork.
  • Speaking of documents, take your own sweet time to read that baby! Doesn't matter if it takes seventy hours, it might be the only way to protect yourself.
  • Go through your friends, your coworkers, your relatives instead of doing it on your own.
  • Avoid anything associated with the name Калiнiн С.В /  Калинин С.В at all costs!!! Or rather, at the cost of a month's rent, haha.
  • There is only a certain number of times the human mind can absorb the theme song of Friends before going all Texas Chainsaw Massacre on Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Joey, Phoebe, and Ross. 

I hope this information helps the next person in line to avoid the same scam. If you know Russian and want more info, check out Kharkov Forum, this nice (but too late for us!) page of blacklisted Kharkov realtors, and a massive vk list of all the known operating locations of the agency that cheated us.

Good luck, and may you never find yourself in the same boat!

PS: I know it's a painful topic, but has anyone else out there been scammed in Ukraine? Leave me a comment!


  1. OMG, I am so sorry! :( That is terrible. What jerks! I cannot believe that. I would want to hunt them down too!

    Also, there is a cafe devoted to 'Friends'? What a nightmarish hell that must have been.

    1. Haha, you would surely get a kick out of it! The only thing missing was themed drinks... "I'll have a Phoebe frappuccino and the Chandler cheesecake, please." :p

  2. I can't what a nightmare it was for you guys to find a place!! What's even more shocking is how common-place these scams are. Glad you were able to overcome this disappointing--and frustrating--obstacle.

    1. Hola Cassandra! It's pretty cool that someone all the way from Spain would read all the way through a post on Ukrainian real estate and then leave a comment. So, thank you :) I'm loving your recent Gaudí pics, btw!

  3. Мне очень очень жаль что так получилось...Жаль что вы не попросили совет. Постарайтесь не переживать. Хотя денег жалко, но их уже не вернешь. Надо успокоиться и смириться. Это ценный опыт на самом деле. В следующий раз, когда вы с D будете не арендовать, а покупать квартиру - будете вооружены! Всё будет хорошо!!!

    1. Это ценный опыт, so true!!! Definitely better armed for the future.

      It reminds me of that saying-
      Wisdom can come from three sources: reflection, which is most noble; imitation, which is the easiest; and experience, which is the most bitter.

  4. В Украине много хороших агентств, жаль что Вам попался мошенник. Возможно благодаря развитию интернет люди будут чаще проверять в гугле телефон и название агентства перед тем как платить деньги...
    Кстати, D спасибо за рекомендацию черного списка агентов который мы ведем в интернете, мы так же предоставляем варианты недвижимости без посредников через интернет.

    1. Hi Sergei, thanks for your comment! I didn't realize your site also offers real estate options. We are looking through the rental options now : )

  5. It's hard to comment on this post...
    I agree with those who claim there is no place for the death penalty in the modern world. But for a different reason. I think it should be replaced with a SLOW DEATH. If it would be in my power to decide, those two would be SKINNED in public.
    And I'm sure, there are people whose duty is to fight this scammers and who are not only aware of this but cover and run this business.
    It's sad that nothing could be done. I mean physically.
    Slow death is a time consuming procedure. (that is the point!) And there going to be a long chain of sentenced, waiting to perform a lesson. And of course, it requires a number of concentration camps, where they they suffer while waiting. And we have done it before. It works, but wrong millions died. Innocent only.
    All this time the nature will keep the balance continuing to supply the society with newborn criminals. Will they learn the lessons? Or, how the saying goes, the higher walls the prison builds, the smarter they get?
    If we can genetically modify vegetables or Molly the sheep, why not to prevent this waste to be born? I know, some of you would say, it's against humanity... But after reading such a story it doesn't look like an obstacle. Especially knowing they have enjoyed what they did. Genetically preventing them to develop criminal minds or even modifying them to plants would be more humanly than to hack them to pieces before the crowd. Although much less spectacular.

    Seriously speaking, I feel there is partly my fault in what happened. I failed to convince you guys to take my help.
    Excuse me for such a long and gory comment.

  6. Hopefully we will all learn from your experiences :-)

    1. That's the silver lining to this cloud- getting the word out so that others don't fall for the same thing. There has already been quite a bit published about this company in Russian and now they're hopefully becoming equally infamous in English too ; )

      Thanks for coming by the blog and sharing this post on your G+! Btw, I enjoyed reading your post the other week on the summer water situation here... ah, good times. It really has to be seen to be believed!

  7. What a nightmare. Bastards. It's so much worse when you don't earn that much and literally have to scrape the money together, only to be ripped off. If I did know someone in the mob, I'd be giving them a call ;)