Photo-Illustration: Lined; Photo: Getty
When the recruiter and his roommate applied for a Hell’s Kitchen one-bedroom apartment last year, they knew two things: the market was fiercely competitive and they themselves weren’t the most attractive candidates. Not that they were bad: The recruiter, who asked that his name be withheld, makes more than $100,000 a year, and he and his roommate both had good credit. But he didn’t quite earn 40 times the $3,500 rent and his bank balance was low that week – he had just paid his bills and gone on vacation. Her roommate, an actor, had been working next door since Broadway went black. So they made some “small changes” to their financial documents, changing numbers on bank statements and pay stubs to reflect what their income and savings had been during the crisis.
“We just kind of falsified those numbers,” he says. “I didn’t feel bad editing the documents. I make over $100,000, I can afford the apartment. My roommate was a second lead in a Broadway show, and then COVID happened. He has two other jobs and no problem paying his rent.
In New York City, where rents are high and tenancy requirements are high – it’s not uncommon for landlords to ask for credit scores over 700, several months of bank statements, letters of employment, references and pay stubs showing tenants making at least 40x the rent (or failing that, guarantors earning at least 80x) – tenants who don’t have the desired references say they have no other choice than to lie. Sometimes the subterfuge is petty, like asking a candidate’s parents to deposit money in her savings account to make her appear more creditworthy than she is, or changing dates on financial documents. to cover up the fact that a lucrative gig recently ended. Others say they made it all up, from credit scores to earnings to employers.
In the United States, rental application fraud has doubled in recent years, from about 6% to 12%, according to Daniel Berlind, CEO and co-founder of Snappt, a prop technology company that detects rental fraud. hiring by checking the back-end data on application documents, looking for digital traces that Photoshop and other editing software leave behind. New York has an application fraud rate of 6% — lower than the national average — but “still very problematic,” he said. Berlind, a landlord in Los Angeles, started the business with another Los Angeles landlord in 2019 after realizing there was no data-driven document fraud detection service. The business has grown rapidly since then, thanks in part to the eviction moratorium. According to Berlind, Snappt’s research shows that people who tamper with application data have much higher eviction rates than other tenants. Of course, part of this may be because landlords only have one reason to go back to verify claims from defaulting tenants; tenants who submit forged documents but pay their rent are likely never caught. And really, say the tenants, what’s the harm if the rent is paid on time?
“I’ve certainly lied many times on rental applications,” says a recent graduate who used friends as professional references and told the owner of her East Village studio that she made $100,000 a year as a as a freelancer in product design. She sent the biggest pay stubs she had received in the last six months, implying that they were typical. “It was the ideal place, but I was not the ideal candidate. I was studying at the time and didn’t have a lot of savings,” she says. But she felt the salary was “in the realm of possibility” after graduation, that she had no one who could act as a guarantor, and it wasn’t like she was going to find a job. place that rented cheaper – the studio is $1,400 per month. So she did what she had to do.
Now she has a design job and is doing what she said she did in her application, a development she attributes, at least in part, to her lying about her ability to afford the apartment. “I took a risk, and I’m very lucky that it worked so that in the end I didn’t lie, but I don’t know if I would be in this position, and able to afford this apartment, if I didn’t live in this apartment,” she said.
As for tampering with documents, it only takes basic Photoshop skills, tenants say, although there is some finesse involved in ensuring everything is checked. Corey Cohen, the founder of the Roebling Group, a real estate brokerage firm, says some counterfeits are so poorly made that they are easy to detect. He called back an applicant who claimed to have $300,000 in his savings account. He bolded the amount at the bottom of his bank statement, but didn’t bother to change other numbers on the document, which showed a much less impressive $5,000. Another person claimed to be an investment banker, but the even numbers on his pay stubs were suspicious. When Cohen called the job reference on the application, the man admitted that he did not work at the bank.
“There’s an artistry in getting the information to match perfectly,” says a photographer and designer who has forged documents for herself and many of her friends. (It was the only way they could get apartments their first years in the city, she said.) . So to get a visual match, in addition to the exchange, you need to “paint” some numbers so they look like they’re part of the document. She asks her friends to decide how much they want their savings to “grow”. For a multi-page bank statement, they need to provide any changes they want to make and make sure the numbers add up.
“As long as it exists in a file format that I can process, there’s hardly anything I can’t ‘adjust’.”
A tenant said her broker did all the work for her; she and her roommate gave him all their real paperwork and he made them look like such ideal tenants that the owners of the condo they eventually rented gave them a discount; it had stood empty for months before they moved in because the owners were unhappy with the other applicants’ finances.
For those who don’t come from wealth and can’t line up with wealthy roommates, the practice may be something of a necessity. More than a third of New Yorkers spend more than 50% of their rent income. The average Manhattan rent reached over $5,000 a month in July, which would require earning $200,000 a year or having a guarantor earning $400,000. I spoke to a recent college grad who works on political campaigns whose parents didn’t make enough money to act as guarantors. So, after pretending to be several apartments, she asked her parents to temporarily deposit a large sum in her savings account. She also doctored her employment contract to make it look like she was still working on a campaign for a candidate who had dropped out of the race. She and her roommates, who both have guarantors, soon after moved into a three-bedroom Bushwick. “I really felt like I was going to have to go back and live with my parents,” the woman said. “The only reason we got the apartment we got, which is a shitty apartment – there are bugs and electrical issues – is that I lied. I don’t respect what’s going on. is happening in the rental market, so I also encouraged other people to lie. As long as you pay your rent, who cares?
There is, however, one big potential pitfall that document manipulators need to watch out for: not increasing their fake earnings enough. This was the case of the recruiter applying for the place in Hell’s Kitchen. Even with the falsified bank statements and payslips, the landlord asked him to find a guarantor. When he refused – “I’m 38. I don’t call my mom and ask her, ‘Hey, can you help me find an apartment?’ – deposit replacement service Rhinoceros as a form of insurance. The cost to Rhino was $200 non-refundable, which wasn’t huge, but the recruiter hates that the owner now basically has two security deposits: the $3,500 he paid and the $3,500 that Rhino will pay if the owner claims damages. (Rhino pays the owner first, then bills them, after which they have to fight to get the money back.) This is also borderline illegal. The 2019 rental laws prohibit landlords from charging more than the first month’s rent and a month’s deposit, but brokers tell me they’ve heard of other landlords requiring Rhino as additional insurance.
“There is no reason for me to review documents and jump through hoops to get an apartment. I can pay the rent, but it’s not about whether you can pay the rent. Owners take advantage of it. They put up all these roadblocks and apparently have no understanding of the finances of anyone who hasn’t been an investment banker in the last ten years,” he says. “So if I have to fake something, I’ll fake something.”