Renting For Members

INTERVIEW: 'How I was scammed out of €4,000 for a Berlin apartment'

Sarah Magill
Sarah Magill - [email protected]
INTERVIEW: 'How I was scammed out of €4,000 for a Berlin apartment'
A rooftop view of the Wedding district in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Monika Skolimowska

When Helna relocated to Berlin at the start of the year, she encountered an experience familiar to many moving to the capital: the ordeal of finding an apartment. But it turned into a nightmare when she fell victim to a scammer.

Looking to move? Find your next rental apartment here.


"I was searching relentlessly for five months, checking every platform possible – eBay Kleinanzeigen, ImmoScout24, Facebook – going to countless apartment viewings with hundreds of other people" said Helna, 31, a software developer from India who was moving from Hamburg.

"It was becoming exhausting and difficult to balance with my job."

Eventually, in May, she found a promising two-room apartment with a small balcony advertised through an agent (Makler) on ImmobilienScout24 in the Wedding district of the city. 

She was offered a 15-minute viewing appointment with a smartly dressed man in his mid-twenties – the agent – who told her that she was one of 26 applicants vying for the same place.

"I took a video of the apartment to prove that I was there at that time," Helna said, already on guard against being scammed.

After the viewing, she provided all the required documents, including her wage slips, and the next day, the agent to told her that she would get the apartment: she just had to sign the contract and pay a total of €4,066 - equivalent to three months' warm rent plus the deposit  - upfront.

She was told this on a Friday and was then contacted again the following day to be informed that she needed to hurry, or she may lose the apartment to someone else. 

READ ALSO: Five common rental scams in Germany and how to avoid them

Feeling the pressure to secure the apartment, Helna signed the contract and made the bank transfer. 

"I transferred the total of €4,066, believing I had taken all necessary precautions," Helna said. "I had seen the apartment and met the guy in person. Plus, I paid via bank transfer, which I thought would be safer."

Waiting to get the keys, the agent then got back in touch a few days later to say that the owner of the property – allegedly based in Munich – was now requiring an additional 2 months’ rent to secure her rental contract. 


At this point, Helna’s suspicions were aroused, and she asked to have the contact number of the owner to speak to them directly, but she was told that it was “difficult to reach her by phone” and was given an email address instead.

Having the address of the owner from the rental contract, however, she asked a friend living in Munich to visit the address of the owner. When they found that no one of that name was living there, she realised she’d been scammed. 

She then contacted the agent and told him she wanted to cancel the contract and sent him her official termination (Kündigung).

The agent confirmed receipt of this and assured her that he would transfer the money back to her. 

A real estate agent shows a prospective tenant an apartment.

A real estate agent shows a prospective tenant an apartment. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

In the meantime, Helna undertook some investigations of her own. She found the agent's personal contact details and home address online and also discovered the apartment she had just paid for was also listed on AirBnb with the same contact number as the agent. 

The agent claimed to have sent her money back, but of course, never actually did so. When she confronted him in a message saying she knew it was a scam, he told her: “you can go to the police if you want, I don’t care.”

"He was so openly cheating; that's what's so hard to believe," Helna said.

Not uncommon

When Helna did go to the police, she was told that such scams were not uncommon and that the process of investigation and prosecution would take weeks. It would first have to be referred to the state prosecutor, who would then decide whether they could take action against the scammer. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Berlin rents and property prices soared in 2022

“So in the meantime, he could carry on scamming more people”. While waiting for the police procedure to progress, Helna could see WhatsApp updates from the scammer showing photos of himself enjoying a luxury holiday. 

However, having obtained the home address of the scammer online, she instructed a lawyer to take up a civil claim against him, while the police investigation moved slowly. 

"But my lawyer told me that getting the money back will be difficult, because if the guy spends all his money and becomes insolvent, there’s nothing he can pay me back with.”

The lawyer nonetheless sent the lawsuit to the scammer’s address and he later informed her in a Whatsapp message “with some angry emoticons” that he had received the lawsuit. 

She also contacted her Bank – Commerzbank – to see if they could revoke the payment which was made to a Sparkasse account. 


"A friend of mine had been scammed before and had been able to get his money back from the bank." 

But this was not the case for Helna. The bank merely confirmed that the scammer had received the money and was told that there was nothing else they could do, as he had used a legitimate IBAN number.

"So, it seems that anyone can use their own bank account with a false account holder name and scam people," she said. 

"Sadly, there are always cases of fraud, even among Commerzbank customers, which we regret," a spokesperson told The Local. "We sensitise our customers to be vigilant, attentive and generally suspicious. In addition, we inform our customers extensively and regularly in our online banking about forms of fraud and how they can protect themselves against them."

READ ALSO: Germany sees record high rent increases in 2023

Now, nearly three months on, Helna is still waiting for an update from the police investigation and for the next stage of her legal claim. Her case is currently being transferred to the state prosecutor and her lawyer has made a further request for the police to start investigations. 

"We have to wait for the police to take some further action based on the request, which could take another three months", she told us.

The scammer, for all she knows, remains at large – though the property has now disappeared from AirBnb. 

The Local is currently waiting for a response regarding Helna's case from the Berlin Police force. Meanwhile, we asked the Federal Criminal Office for any tips on how flat-hunters can avoid such scams.


They directed us to their website which details some of the most common flat rental scams and how to avoid them. One of the most useful tips from this site is that, if you make a payment by direct debit - or SEPA Lastschrift in German - you can ask your bank to reverse the payment and demand a refund within eight weeks.

Therefore, where possible, you should insist on making the first payment to the landlord via direct debit.

Luckily, though, Helna has since managed to find an apartment in Berlin, through another agent.

"I made sure I saw the deeds of ownership of this property and the legal authorisation for the agent."

In response to a request for comment from The Local, ImmobilenScout24 told us that the scam Helna fell victim to was a case of "advance-fee fraud", which they said is the most common fraud method on property platforms.

READ ALSO: 10 types of flat rental advert you're bound to see in Germany

"The perpetrators seem to have acted extremely professionally in this matter. However, it's commendable that Helna reported the fraud to the police for investigation and has taken civil legal steps as well. We also recommend that our users report any fraudulent listings to us, enabling us to support the police in their investigations," they told us. 

They added that ImmoScout24, takes fraud very seriously and collaborates closely with the police and media outlets to keep on top of emerging scams. 


Tips for portal uses

In terms of how to avoid such scams, ImmoScout24 offered The Local several useful tips.

Firstly, it's important to be cautious of offers that seem disproportionately low-priced for the given location, as scammers often use tempting prices as bait for their fraudulent schemes. ImmoScout24 users can assess the "Price and Location Information" provided in listings to gauge whether the indicated apartment price aligns with realistic market rates.

Incomplete or nonsensical property descriptions and mismatched photos that don't align with the apartment's location and description should also be a red flag.

A set of keys placed on a rental contract in Germany.

A set of keys placed on a rental contract in Germany. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | DB Dieter Assmann

If a listing lacks information about additional costs, or if the base rent and warm rent have an unusual ratio, these could also be signs of fraud.

Another indicator is if the communication primarily occurs in English, and the sole contact information provided is an email address.


"Be wary if a prepayment is requested before viewing the apartment, especially if an escrow service is involved, as ImmoScout24 does not offer such a service", a spokesperson told The Local. 

"As a user, it's wise to exercise caution and never transfer money before physically seeing the apartment, receiving a signed lease agreement, and being handed the keys. Also, be mindful about sharing personal information, as it could potentially be exploited by scammers".

They added that, if you encounter a listing that seems dubious, you should report it to ImmoScout24's customer service by using the "Report" button in the listing.


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also