I think that I was scammed for two months' rent ($4,200) in NYC -- what can I do?
April 9, 2012 8:26 PM   Subscribe

So I've found myself in a bit of a sticky situation and need advice. I recently subleased a studio in Manhatttan for a couple of months (April and May) from a guy ("John") whose lease expires at the end of May. He seems like a decent, reliable guy. He said that he's moving back home for a while to start a company (different state), and that he recently quit his job (financial services industry, upon looking him up myself). On move-in day, after helping him pack his car, he gave me the keys and was on his way.

Not an hour later, I ran into a person who works with the owners of the building, who was extremely surprised about the whole thing, and who told me that John had not paid rent for the past few months. He told me that he needs payment asap, or that I would be on the street in a few days. That was april 1st. He also said that he does not care that I'm subleasing as long as they get paid.

At that point there was some back and forth with John and on the next day he assured me that he'd overnighted a check for the rent that he owes.

I thought all was good and well until today, when I ran into the same guy close to the owners, who told me that he has still not received a check, and that they would basically have to kick me out soon.

At this point I've obviously lost faith in John and I'd like to know what my options are -- in terms of amicably getting him to hold up his end of the deal; and legal, if it comes to that.

I paid him upfront for the two months via Chase QuickPay (person-to-person payments) directly from my checking account into his checking account. I attached a detailed memo with the payment, noting that it's for rent, the duration, and the address of the property.

There was no paperwork involved since (as I understand it) he had no contractual right to sublease the apartment. I gathered that this is how most subleases are done here, though I'd appreciate input on that matter, as well. I didn't leave a deposit with him -- just two months' rent ($4,200).

What should I do at this point?

many thanks for any pointers at all.

posted by rossen to Law & Government (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If there's a tenant's rights organization in NYC, you could contact them and ask about your legal rights. You could consider getting a lawyer involved, but you'd have to decide if the expense involved was worth it to you.

Small claims court might be an option - either telling him you're going to pursue it, or actually pursuing it if it comes down to that.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:46 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I ran into a person who works with the owners of the building

This part struck me funny. Are you 100% sure this person speaks for the owners? It just seems like a weird coincidence that you keep running into him and he keeps telling you (in so many words) pay us a ton of money or you're out. Just something to consider.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:52 PM on April 9, 2012 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: thank you. also, i forgot to mention that i have a bunch of emails and texts from him confirming every bit of the transaction. could be helpful w/ small claims court i guess.
posted by rossen at 8:53 PM on April 9, 2012

You want to speak to the owners directly about this. Not "some guy".
posted by mhoye at 8:54 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

rossen: "I ran into a person who works with the owners of the building"

You need to speak to the owners directly. It's possible this second person is trying to scam you, regardless of whether 'John' is above board or not.
posted by dg at 8:56 PM on April 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

Talk to Chase, they may be able to get your money back. I would make a police report also and try to get them involved. The guy committed some kind of fraud.
The good news is that you have the guys name, #, bank account info.
posted by lee at 9:11 PM on April 9, 2012

Agreed, you need to talk with the owners directly & not put out a penny more until you talk with them. Not sure about John or the legality of things, but if you are not on the lease, I don't think you would be held liable for outstanding rent, he would be. Could you find yourself on the other side of an inconveniently locked door? Possibly, but not without notice which should be delivered straight to your door. Obviously, I'm not a lawyer or a tenant's right expert, & have never rented in NYC.
posted by katemcd at 9:12 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lots of speculation in this thread. The only person you should be speaking with at this point is the actual owner, not some guy who claims to be close to the owner.
posted by dfriedman at 9:14 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

An aside on small claims: small claims is very difficult to pursue across state lines. If you do choose to sue John in small claims, in order to get an enforceable judgement you would likely have to go to his home state and sue him there.
posted by phoenixy at 9:33 PM on April 9, 2012

Wait, do you have any sort of lease for the place? I am assuming you were under the assumption that John had a lease. So, then you were "subletting" from him. So, it sounds like John broke his lease with the owners. John owes them money. But what legally binding contract do you have with the owners? I guess technically you are just squatting right now. If you just moved out tomorrow, would they even have any idea who you are?
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 9:43 PM on April 9, 2012

They can't evict you or John without a notice to pay or quit, then it goes to court. You now live there, despite John's shenanigans. You do have tenant rights.

Do you like the place? Do you want to stay there?

Maybe you could sign a lease with the owner. Once you've worked out who owes what and paid to whom, go ahead and approach the owner about signing a lease.

#1, I agree you should contact the owner, and if they have not been paid, get documentation from them and file a police report. In that event, what John did was fraud and theft.

#2 - Confirm your rights with a tenant's rights org, but I'm 100% sure the owner can't legally change the locks on you at this point. Confirm your rights.

#3 - Yes, call Chase and try to get the payment reversed if it turns out you have to file a police report because John committed a crime against you.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 9:47 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

What did John say about this "guy close with the owners" when you mentioned that? That might provide a clue about whether this guy is a legit agent of the owners or a scammer.

The concern that I see here is the possibility that John had already been served with an eviction notice and/or that proceedings had already started when you moved in.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:04 PM on April 9, 2012

If you can't get the payment reversed, I'd read up on NYC eviction proceedings. Who they serve depends on what kind of notice, and determines the amount of time. In an ideal world, they'd have to pull their shit together, serve you with a 30 day notice, youd fail to respond, you'd get a court date, you'd turn up and point out the notice is invalid, and while they started all of this over again, it would be the end of May and you wouldn't care.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:08 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: thanks everyone! i will get a hold of the actual owners and talk to them. i will also contact chase, and look into filing a police report.

drjimmy11, et al: that's a valid point about 'the guy who works w/ the owners'. I did see him help settle/move-in my next door neighbor. also, during my conversations with 'John', it became kind of evident that he really is the guy to talk to about the lease. the two of them were talking with each other regarding the missing payments, etc.

katemcd: i would *hope* that I'm not liable for his missed payments which probably amount to several thousands of dollars. at this point i'd like to find a way to either stay for my prepaid duration (preferred), or get my money back and move out.

phoenixy: i believe he's a NY resident because he's lived here for the past four years; would it be better to file in the state in which he's currently residing? (South Carolina)

This_Will_Be_Good: your assumptions are correct; John has a lease on the place, I'm subletting from him, and I do not have any relationship with the owners whatsoever. I did give my name and phone # to the guy who either works for, or is close to the owners.

jbenben: that is very helpful. I was thinking that if they wanted to, the owners could simply have me removed for trespassing as I have no signed lease with them, nor with John. You're saying that I actually do have some sort of rights even in my situation, and that they can't simply kick me out? I do like the place and was considering signing a lease of my own. I guess that could be used as leverage with the owners (if they want me as a tenant).

needs more cowbell: i don't really know, but it looks like they have not began the eviction process and are just trying to get him to pay what he owes

DarlingBri: i can work with that, assuming i do have some sort of rights and am not just a 'trespasser' in the eyes of the law.

will keep you posted. thanks everyone!!
posted by rossen at 11:13 PM on April 9, 2012

I would suggest not just living in the apartment without paying because you know that evicting you will take months.

First, it sucks that you were scammed - but unless this is a scam masquerading as a different scam, it didn't have anything to do with your new landlords. It was this John guy. Just passing the loss off onto them is unethical.

Second, many landlords do background checks, and that can include court judgements. Evictions are a potential red flag that will make it harder for you to get an apartment later. At least, this is true in my state; it might be different in NY.

You might feel like you've paid two months rent, but you actually haven't. The owners of the property didn't get anything. Right now, they are probably thinking about how they can minimize their loss, and might be willing to negotiate with you.

Personally, as someone who's dealt with the landlording business, I would see you as a risk. You say a past problem tenant scammed you, which maybe I believe is the whole story, and maybe I don't. Now you don't want to pay me at all until May. I don't know what you'll do in May. Maybe you'll live up to your word and start paying rent, but maybe you'll just leave, or maybe you'll try to get a couple more months out of me.

There wouldn't be all that much I could do to get you out before May, but it might be safer to start eviction proceedings anyway to prevent that last scenario. However, if you offered to sign a lease and to pay partial rent for the months you got scammed for? I'd be pretty likely to say yes, because I would see it as my best shot of preventing a total loss for those months.

Paying John's back rent is unreasonable. You weren't living there at the time. I would be firm on that.


This part shouldn't vary: Whatever you do, know your rights as a tenant first. Definitely before you try to negotiate. One thing I would ask the tenant's rights people in your shoes is (a) Am I on the hook for John's past rent, (b) Is it legal for the landlord to refuse to sign a new lease with me unless I pay John's past rent? (I would be shocked if the answer to (a) was yes, because that wouldn't be true in my landlord-friendly state.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:09 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, wait - you don't want to pay anything until June. It's already April! Uh.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:10 AM on April 10, 2012

I didn't leave a deposit with him -- just two months' rent ($4,200).

Yes, go to the actual owners just to cover all your bases, though it DOES sound like the guy who knows the owners is their actual representative.

Then, police. Because this isn't just a sticky situation, you just got scammed for $4200, and funded a deadbeat's move out of the city and probably his down payment on his new place.
posted by jayder at 5:23 AM on April 10, 2012

If in fact this is all true, and you do end up getting evicted, unless there is some lease paperwork with your name on it, you shouldn't have to worry about your name showing up anywhere. You have no duty to the owners of the building, only to the person from whom you leased the property.

They may well try to convince you that you owe them money, but that is not your problem. Their contract is with the guy who signed the lease. If you want to stay past the end of June and start a new lease, they can refuse to offer that to you if they want, but that's their loss. You owe them nothing. If you are getting a tremendous deal, where even after paying someone else's back rent you would come out ahead, you can decide to do that if you want, but I wouldn't recommend it. A landlord that tries to stick other people with other people's bills probably isn't going to be a great landlord.

So, what you should do is tell them in as friendly a manner as possible, that they need to stop hitting you up for money. John is the lessee and he is the one who owes them money. If they need to start the eviction process, then they can do that if they like. However, you should warn them against trying to evict you by name. You don't want to make their lives harder, but that you will fight (and delay) any action against you to protect your good reputation.
posted by gjc at 6:09 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

also, during my conversations with 'John', it became kind of evident that he really is the guy to talk to about the lease. the two of them were talking with each other regarding the missing payments, etc.

This could just mean they are trying to scam you together.
posted by mikepop at 6:33 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're making life much more difficult for yourself than it has to be.

If they want to evict John, they have to serve notice. They have to get a court order to evict after serving the notice to quit. They have to jump through a bunch of hoops. It's going to take, on average, 3 months to "actually" evict a non-paying tenant in NYC.

It's April. You're leaving in less than 2 months. Don't get involved, especially if you haven't signed a formal sublease.
posted by ellF at 6:47 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Legal sublets happen all the time in NYC. Illegal ones do, too, but it isn't because legally subletting in NYC is hard; in fact, the laws are written such that a landlord cannot really refuse a reasonable sublet request made in writing by a good tenant. Illegal sublets happen frequently when the person with the Manhattan lease decides they want to 1.) make a profit on their apartment by subletting it for more than they pay in rent 2.) as in your case, they are in arrears to their landlord, need quick cash, and do what John did to you or 3.) it's written into their signed lease that subletting is not allowed. I'm sure there are other reasons, too.

In any event, in the future, know that you do not have to give people huge lump sums up front for a sublease in NYC. If you can't get a legally binding, above-board sublet agreement in writing, your only protection from this sort of thing is to make the person you're subletting from dependent on you every month for your rent check. Anyone who demands the whole amount up front without giving you anything in return other than a set of keys is shady.

I'm sorry this happened to you. Were I you, I'd keep my head down for the next two months, refer this "friend" of the owner of to John for the back rent every time he asks (citing the payment receipt you have from Chase as proof that, hey, you gave John some money so, hey, John has a bit of money now), and start looking for a new place immediately.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:22 AM on April 10, 2012

Yeah, I have to say I agree with ellF. Whatever the owner or the super or whoever says to you, you just say "I paid John, here's the receipt (I would have a copy of this to give them just as a sort of good faith gesture) I'm not liable for anything further and I'm leaving on June 1." Then you go on your way and really, I don't think there's anything they can do to you. It takes time to evict somebody, particularly in NYC and since you're not even on the lease in the first place and it's John they're going after, I think you're fine.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:24 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is NYC. You've got probably 6 months before you're on the street if they want to actually go through with evicting you. My guess is they'd rather work out something than go through the time and expense to get you booted.
posted by spicynuts at 7:29 AM on April 10, 2012

i have some experience in landlord tenant law (at various times, i've been a landlord, a tenant, and an employee of law firm representing tenants in NYC) and i'd just like to chime in to say that the advice on this thread is sound. always impressed by the caliber of askmefi advice.
posted by zdravo at 8:55 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

You gave away $4200 with nothing in writing? Seriously?

Get the advice of a lawyer if the bank wont help you get the money back. However, I have a feeling you are screwed.
posted by twblalock at 1:34 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

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