Sunday 4 July 2010

An Englishman in New York- a cautionary tale

I prefer not to stay in hotels when visiting foreign cities.

Hotels, at least the ones I can afford, are mostly under-lit, overheated, cramped and impersonal. No doubt I could pay more and stay in better-lit, well ventilated and spacious places, but I prefer to spend my cash in other ways- jazz clubs, concerts, books, restaurant meals – and used to be happy to treat my hotel room as a box with a bed, nothing more. But I’ve realised that, with the help of the internet, it’s not hard to find alternatives.

So in recent years I’ve stayed in apartments in Budapest, Krakow, Paris and Barcelona- all humble places but offering more space, facilities and privacy than any hotel room, and at comparable cost.

A few years ago a friend introduced me to Craig’s List, an online classified ads service covering the major US cities and including vacation rentals. So for my last trip to New York I found a room in an apartment house on E 3rd St owned by a religious organisation that did good works around the city; a modest room modestly priced, and including a ‘make-your-own’ breakfast in a communal kitchen-cum-sitting room. The rooms were decorated ecumenically with pictures of Jesus, Buddha and Hindu deities, but the owners did not proselytise and the religious music they played in the breakfast room in the mornings was quite soothing.

And it was in an interesting neighbourhood- the East Village- made more interesting by the presence of the New York Chapter of the Hell’s Angels next door. ‘Please do not sit on our neighbors’ bench’ read the sign in out hallway. As if we’d dare.

The previous year I’d found- also through Craig’s List- a 2-bedroom apartment on Suffolk St (just south of E Houston on the Lower East Side) for myself, my daughter and her man. It was owned by an artist and was decorated with his paintings and his thoughts on art, life & commerce- on the walls and ceiling. We never got to meet Zito- he moved into his friend’s place whenever he had tenants & was by his own admission ‘not a morning person’- but we communicated adequately by message and text. The apartment was certainly a more individual experience than any anonymous midtown hotel. Just down the street once stood the anarchist cafĂ© where Emma Goldman first met Alex Berkmann. And just round the corner is Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes.

During my first trips to NYC I never ventured out of Manhattan- there was just too much to experience on that small island to think of visiting the other boroughs. More recently I’ve been exploring Brooklyn, so decided to find some accommodation in Williamsburg (a hip Brooklyn neighbourhood) for my next trip- planned for the first week in July.

A room in the apartment of a young couple in the fashion business, 2 subway stops from Manhattan, seemed ideal. My own entrance, use of the kitchen and bathroom, and a great coffee shop down the road. No deposit required.

A week before my flight they emailed me to say they had been offered work in LA and sorry, the room was no longer available. Time to consult Craig’s List again, quickly.

This is where this post changes direction – no longer in praise of NYC apartment living, more caveat emptor.

The standout offer was for a studio apartment at 105 E 9th St- advertised with photographs- and yes, it was available for my dates. Please sign this 3 page agreement. Please send a 50% deposit by Western Union only, and to the owner’s daughter in Virginia. Alarm bells should have rung, but I was anxious to secure the

apartment, and sent the money. I was emailed that the money had been received, and the booking was confirmed. I wrote to ask how I would recognise the apartment when I arrived at the building; no reply. I looked on Street View and saw there indeed was an apartment building at 105, with a keypad at the entrance, so wrote to ask what numbers I should enter; no reply. Still my flight was booked, and surely everything would be clear when I arrived.

Clear it certainly was; none of the tenants in the building know anything of my apartment- owner, and there were no studio apartments in the building. It had been a con, elaborate, professional. I booked a couple of nights in a nearby hotel to give myself some time to think, but by the end of the first night I’d decided to come home as quickly as possible- the shine had been rubbed off the holiday with a vengeance.

The airline took pity on me and only surcharged me $105.

How was I conned so easily? Leaving aside the saying containing the words ‘no’, ‘fool’ and ‘old’ and the fact that I needed to book somewhere in a hurry, I’ve concluded that the honesty of the jazz community is to blame. (Poor joke, I know.)

Each year hundreds of customers send me cash in advance, trusting that I’ll be honest and send them the goods they’ve ordered. Each year I send out hundreds of packets with invoices, trusting my customers will pay up. No-one has ever been let down. An expectation of honest dealing develops; I’m not ashamed of my naivety, but furious at this breach of trust.

Some advice and practical matters: never send money by Western Union to someone you don’t know- they have none of the anti-fraud procedures of Paypal. And please don’t book an apartment (in NYC or elsewhere) from (who may well not exist) aka Unique-Suite Vacation Rental or from Wendy Accurso, 12 Aunt Lilly Lane, Annandale VA 22003 (who presumably does exist, because you have to take valid ID to the Western Union office to collect cash.)

I intend to pursue these crooks as far as I can, with Craig’s List, Google, Western Union and the Annandale VA police department. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Since making the original post I've learned that this is a large, well-organised scam covering several US cities and involving several individuals- or more likely one individual using several names and email addresses. I'm clearly not the only person who's been conned- not that I feel any better for that.

I've alerted Craigs List- no reply to date.