Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Central Asians Fleeced in Moscow

In the Russian capital, rogue property agents rob migrants desperate for someone cheap to stay – and it’s all legal.
By Erbol Jumagulov

Central Asian migrants arriving in Moscow face many difficulties adjusting to life in the city – not the least of which is being robbed by unscrupulous accommodation agencies.

The scam is simple enough: the newcomer pays over some money to receive a list of telephone numbers for rented accommodation. When he tries ringing the numbers, he or she rapidly finds out the list is fraudulent.

There are several hundred shady property-rental firms in the city, exploiting people who do not have the money to go to a proper estate agent in a spiralling rental market. Their adverts can be seen posted at any bus stops or underground stations. Many of the Central Asians coming to Moscow to work, study or settle permanently make easy victims, as they are unfamiliar with life in Russia and are often short of money.

Bohtior Yuldashev, a 24-year-old computer programmer, landed a job in the Russian capital in May, and after staying with relatives for a month until he got his first wages, he set about renting a room.

With a pay cheque of 400 US dollars for the month, Yuldashev’s options were limited in a city where renting a room costs 150 to 250 US dollars a month. So he jumped at an advert he saw at a bus stop offering rooms at just 50 dollars.

When he visited the property agency which posted the ad, a firm called Bely Parus, his positive feelings only increased. “They were very kind, they offered me tea and treated me very politely,” he told IWPR. “I was given some papers to sign, and then I paid 50 dollars and was given a list of 10 telephone numbers, which the agency staff said belonged to people who were renting out rooms.”

But when Yuldashev began ringing the numbers, he found that three were answered by people who had no plans to rent out rooms, and the other numbers appeared not to exist.

He returned to agency the next morning to clear things up. “In response to my complaints, the agency employees simply shrugged and said that they didn’t know anything about it and couldn’t help. They told me to come back later, and gave me another piece of paper with telephone numbers. But those numbers were wrong too,” said Yuldashev.

The small print in the contract allows such companies to exploit a legal loophole by stating that they are not offering to find accommodation, but simply offering information. It is virtually impossible to prove that the lists of phone numbers are deliberately fraudulent rather than erroneous or out of date.

As IWPR’s contributor was told when he went to the Bely Parus agency, “We’re operating within the law, selling information.” When the reporter asked more questions, he was shown out of the office.

The shady firms avoid leaving a trail by changing their names and premises frequently, and in any case the people they defraud are by definition too poor to take them to court.

Some Central Asians, including Yuldashev, are even more vulnerable because their knowledge of Russian is limited. “If Russian-speakers fall for this fraud, then of course the Uzbeks will too, as most of them can’t understand what’s in the agreement they sign,” said Moscow sociologist Gennady Averintsev.

Russian police appear unconcerned at the scale of the problem. “The problem of fraudulent estate agencies is a problem for the foreigners themselves, because they sign the agreements,” said a spokesman for the central police precinct in Moscow.

In a city where renting even a small apartment is beyond the means of the average migrant, the fraudsters target those at the bottom of the property ladder.

“The worst thing is that it’s not people with money who are deceived, but people who are trying to rent a small, cheap room,” said Piotr Obraztsov, editor of the Izvestiya Nauki newspaper. “People who can afford a decent apartment, even if it’s only got one room, go to large estate agencies which do not practice fraud.”

Olga Kindra, who works for one such reputable estate agency, Miel-Real Estate, confirmed that money was a major factor which led people to be duped, saying, “Foreigners fall victim to fraud because they can’t afford to pay [legitimate] agents a commission equal to the monthly rent of the accommodation being transacted.”

Erkebulan Jamaladdinov, who comes from the Kazak city of Kokshetau, admitted as much, recalling, “When I fell for this fraud a year ago, I really did want to save on agent’s fees. They are very good at winning a client’s trust – when I signed the documents, I would never have imagined I could be cheated.”

The influx of Central Asians attracted by the relative prosperity of Moscow is unlikely to slow, so the rogue property agencies are likely to flourish as long as the law allows them.

“I lost the last of savings because of one of these agencies, and I had to live on the street,” said Oleg Kulakov, a Russian from Kyrgyzstan. “Thank God, I was lucky enough to get out of that situation, but I tell all my friends who’re trying to rent accommodation to go to a major agency.

“It’s better to pay more but be safe.”

Erbol Jumagulov is an independent journalist in Moscow.