Laowai ripping off foreigners in Shanghai property rentals

By Christopher Cottrell Source:Global Times Published: 2015-11-2 17:43:01

"The scumbag told me I had eight days to get out of my apartment! That is totally illegal and I know that!"

The scumbag my friend was describing to me over drinks was in fact not some moneyed local landlord but a foreigner, which in many ways made his ordeal even worse. As he told it, the foreign middleman had informed him that the Chinese owner of the flat he was renting had decided to sell.

"So I had my company attorney call the owner of the building. It was untrue. The foreigner in charge of the rents was lying! There are so many corrupt laowai now in Shanghai," he said.

I was shocked to hear this from someone who has been in Shanghai since 2001 and is the president of a global company, so I can only imagine what would have happened if this was some hapless new arrival on a poor teacher's salary. Sadly, it probably does occur more than has been disclosed.

While expat renters often get scammed by Chinese realtors or greedy local landlords, many never would expect to get ripped off by one of our own. But the fact of the matter is that, as Shanghai becomes one of Asia's most expensive cities and property prices soar, laowai-on-laowai real estate scams are becoming more prevalent here.

"As Shanghai becomes more unaffordable, what you are seeing are a lot of newbie kids in their 20s sharing flats," one Western real estate executive based in Shanghai told me. "One person signs the main contract with the landlord and collects the rent and deposit from his flat mates."

"But," he added, "what happens is that one will suddenly disappear with all the money, leaving the onus on the others to deal with the outraged Chinese property owner. They can't get their deposit back, and they can be evicted at any time because they did not sign the contract with the Chinese landlord."

The most egregious case of foreigners being ripped off by other foreigners in Shanghai real estate dealings occurred in 2012. A Canadian man named Ryan Fedoruk purportedly scammed 80 foreign tenants from 30 different Shanghai flats, allegedly making off with over 300,000 yuan ($47,572) before skipping town.

"Ryan started to make me very cheap offers, he lowered the price, offered me a swimming-pool membership and was holding the key under my nose saying," one of Fedoruk's victims, who got swindled for thousands of yuan, said in an interview.

At the time, expat weblog Shanghaiist gave one of the most in-depth accounts of the incident, quoting local lawyer Wu Dong as saying, "The suspect may face three to five years behind bars in China…if he is confirmed by police to be involved in the fraud."

However, I was recently informed by Eva Gao, a local lawyer who represented the claimants, that Fedoruk fled to Canada, leaving her clients without compensation - and demonstrating the ease of flight that criminal-minded foreigners in China enjoy.

Fedoruk's scam is now legendary among Shanghai expats, but even more threatening are the smaller-scale, lesser-known scams and schemes that newly arrived foreigners looking to lease tend to encounter here. Some renters will turn around and rent their rooms at exponentially higher rates without informing the principal signer, while other renters will partition living rooms into illegal dormitories. Anyone caught by the property owner or authorities living in such a place can be held liable without any legal recourse.

Even the seemingly smallest dispute with a landlord, such as a leaky faucet or a thumbtack hole in the wall, is often enough for them to justify withholding your deposit. "I would say that most common problems arise from maintenance and deposit issues," Shanghai-based lawyer Jason Tian cautions. "Many landlords are trying to find reason to forfeit a tenant's deposit at the end of the term."

Whether one is dealing with a Chinese property owner or laowai middleman, Tian says the best thing to do when encountering a property dispute is to immediately retain a Chinese lawyer. "Today's China is abundant with fraudulent people scratching for opportunities to grab money."

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.

Posted in: TwoCents, Metro Shanghai, Pulse

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