Kazaks Stung by Apartment Fraud

A failure to legally register rental agreements is leaving Almaty's poor and vulnerable open to exploitation.

Kazaks Stung by Apartment Fraud

A failure to legally register rental agreements is leaving Almaty's poor and vulnerable open to exploitation.

Inna Vorontsova thought she had it made when she found an attractive and affordable flat in Almaty.

But only two days after she had handed a deposit and her first rent payment to the young man who had advertised the property, the flat's real owners came home and demanded she leave immediately.

The young woman is just one of the growing number of victims of conmen at work in the former capital.

While an unemployed man is now facing up to two years in prison on fraud charges relating to Vorontsova's experience, a reluctance on the part of Kazaks to involve the authorities - usually due to their failure to officially register property deals to avoid paying tax - means that most conmen go unpunished.

Young businessman Kairat Kaspaev chose not to approach the police when he was stung by a bogus estate agent who sold him an apartment she had rented for a day. Just as Kaspaev was about to move into the flat, its real owner returned from a business trip.

As the country's cultural, educational and financial hub, Almaty attracts a constant flow of people from all around the country who come to study and find better paid jobs. This swells the city's one million population and further increases the already high real estate prices, putting further pressure on the cheaper end of the market.

"In recent months, there has been a marked increase in the number of complaints about housing fraud," police lieutenant Sergei Skvortsov told IWPR.

"This is probably linked to the start of the academic year, as people from all over Kazakstan come here for their higher education and need to find somewhere to live."

To avoid the extra expense of paying a reputable estate agent, many poorer Kazaks - usually students and pensioners - decide to deal directly with landlords who advertise in newspaper property columns. But this can leave them open to exploitation.

There are many ways to con a potential tenant. Some crooks keep an eye out for apartments that appear to have been empty for a long time, breaking into them when they are sure that the owners are away. Then they advertise in one of Almaty's newspapers, lure a prospective tenant, and take money from them before disappearing.

When the true owners return, the tenant has no legal right to the property, losing both his money and home.

Other tricksters will rent an apartment legitimately, for a period of around two or three months, and sub-let it for an increased rent and a longer term. When the real landlord shows up the latter tenants are left out of pocket and evicted.

Almaty's estate agents are now warning house-hunters to deal only with legally-registered firms, and reminding them that they have a legal right to see the company's licence before entrusting them with money.

Erbol Janabaev, who works for an Almaty law firm, says securing a sound tenancy without the help of professionals is a long and difficult process.

"To rent an apartment from an individual without agency help, you should first of all check the owner's property deeds against his identity documents, to make sure that the home really belongs to him.

"You need to fill out a rental agreement and have it legalised through a justice of the peace, and then you must register the document in the real estate department. The owner of the apartment must then pay a monthly tax to the government."

It is this tax that many people seek to avoid by failing to register lease agreements with the authorities - making it more difficult to approach the police if anything goes wrong.

Senior Almaty police officer Yan Girin argues that more regulation is needed. " If there was a crackdown on individuals who rent property without legal registration, the problem of apartment fraud could disappear almost overnight," he said.

Svetlana Moiseeva is an independen journalist in Almaty

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