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Naïve little Asian

January kickstarted the year with a busy bout of moving-related activties and whats not, but February doesn’t plan to be overshadowed with a peaceful lull. Instead it throws in a challenge that had been most unexpected – something that threw me off, shakened me – and had me questioning, for one short second, if I am suited to live in a big city.

Sculture

In short: I was blindsided and scammed in my own home. Definitely not my day.

It was supposed to be a quiet day in for me to research on my current project. Kitted out in my comfy clothes, I was glued to the laptop scanning through pages of information while having my lunch at the same time (yes, I know, what a terrible habit of eating in front of the screen). The doorbell rang and recalling my neighbour was at our door just twice on the previous day, I cheerfully opened to door to greet her.

Except, of course, it wasn’t my neighbour. It was a man I’ve never met before. Let’s call him X. He was here to have a quick look at our gas heating fixture, and he represents a company that attends to this task in our building on an annual basis. The trouble of being new meant I didn’t yet know all that goes on, what kind of works the syndic may have asked for workman to do, etc. Moreover, in my previous apartments, collective heating were used so I thought, “Ok, something new I should have known about.

I let X in and even helpfully pointed out where the meter was, but he was interested instead in climbing up to look at the gas vent. He started unscrewing a container that capped the vent and was astonished that I have let the container filled up completely with soot, thus blocking proper ventilation in our apartment. In his professional opinion, this hasn’t been cleaned for a number of years and he had never seen anything so bad before. Another month or two, I could have died from gas poisoning or a fire could have taken place.

Whaaaaaaat? My brain was racing – we just moved here and had we been rented a place that posed such danger? He continued: it is the responsibility of the tenant of an apartment to had this service and if we’re new here, evidently the previous tenant hasn’t been terribly conscientious about the required cleaning. The annual vent cleaning is a requirement by law (this is true) and the certificate needs to be presented to the insurance company for full coverage (also a true statement).

Then I hit back. Afterall, if his company has been in charge of working on the cleaning every year, why hasn’t it been done? Moreover, we had a certification for the service of the gas heating system from the previous tenant and our letting agent hadn’t mention anything to us either about the vent requirement (ok, this is not the guy’s fault and clearly our letting agent should have said something to us).

His responses? Perhaps the occupants were not here previously when the company came by, so there was nothing they could do if that’s the case since they had no access to the apartment. And maintenance of the gas heater is a separate thing from the vent cleaning, and the service guy would not have done anything about it since they’re not licenced for such a job. Errr, not to even warn about the possibiblity of clogging and gas poisoning? Apparently so.

Urgent cleaning is supposedly required. X started filling out “an invoice” and asked me to sign the authorisation to work. I was flustered and my brain was trying to catch up with all that has happened within minutes while translating what I thought X was telling me. Something still just didn’t feel right but as Daniel Kahneman would say, my System 2 was exhausted at that point and my System 1 was trying to take over.

Still, System 2 fought back. A gist of our continued conversation:

L: Why was I not informed by the syndic’ of your company coming by?
X: A notice has been put downstairs for a week…
L: … which can’t be true because I certainly haven’t seen it at all.
X: Someone could have taken it down although I don’t understand why they do that.
L: Who from the syndic’ orders the annual service so I can clarify the situation?
X: Look, this is your responsibilty to keep the vent clear. I’m just here to do the works.
L: And I’ll have to pay you now? Your company can’t invoice the syndic’?
X: Yes, you have to pay now. We don’t do separate invoicing.
L: But I have no cash to pay you.
X: The payment can also be done by cheque.
L: I don’t have any household cheque – my partner and I used an online bank.
X: I’ll need 10-15 minutes to work, enough time for you to go to the cash machine.
L: But I am not dressed to go out!
X: If you do change while I work, then we can go to the cash machine together.

You can imagine my unease by now. I rang F to see if he knows anything about this cleaning (I finally figured out the guy is not here to service the gas system but to service the vent), and at the same time knocked on my neighbour’s door to verify the legitimacy of the presence of X and his arriving colleagues! Sadly there was just a whole lot of confusion, and as my neighbour have electric but not gas heating system, she rang her husband for more information too.

I passed on the telephone to X twice, once to speak to my neighbour and once to F. He was annoyed and repeated rather tensedly pretty much what he had told me about obligations and legal requirements etc. My neighbour told me perhaps I should consider paying X and claim the cost from our landlord. F also suggested that I pay X, but only by cheque, for he fear X and his colleagues won’t leave and could become aggressive with me.

I have left the front door of the apartment open all these time and my neighbour stayed by it, just in case I needed help, but her baby daughter started to cry. By now, the “cleaning” had been done despite the lack of authorisation from anyone at all, the kitchen looked a sooty mess, and the men were pressing for the payment. I had the sinking feeling I’ve been completely bamboozled and yet I can’t seem to find a way to fight against their trickery. Not in French anyway. Now, that was really frustrating.

Note

I took out my personal cheque book and reluctantly issued a cheque, but not before I asked him to write an attestation at the back of the “invoice” his professional opinion re the “dangerous condition” in case I need to speak to our letting agent. The note he wrote was completely incoherent and useless, and he didn’t even have the courtesy to sign in his own name. The so-called assertion of “at least 2-3 years unattended cleaning and at high risk of gas poisoning and fire” cannot be put in writing (I did ask for the addition) and that was it. They wanted me to just sign the invoice and paid up.

I felt exhausted after they left, and was beating myself up over several running thoughts: Why did I let them in? Why did I not tell them to leave? Why did I not stand firm on my conviction that this whole thing reeked scam and I should have called them out? Why did I sign the slip when I really shouldn’t have? Why did I pay them? Why did I feel guilty about telling them I didn’t have a household cheque book and then felt like I was lying when I took out my personal cheque book even though I had stated the truth?

Slightly dazed and unsure what to do next, my friends came to the rescue by digging up information so I could better decide my next move. We first tried to exercise the rights to withdraw the service agreement (afterall, I’ve stupidly signed the invoice at the very end) on account of gaining entry by deception, but the person answering the number on the invoice refused to discuss it rationally with F. Failing that, our alternative was to lodge a police report so I can bring the attestation to the bank and legitimately cancel the cheque.

At the police station, I carefully recounted what happened except I didn’t think to mention the intimidating and passive-aggresive discussion on payment, so it was deemed “a commercial transaction gone wrong” which they couldn’t interfere but referred me to the local court. At the Tribunal d’Instance I was given a phone number to ring for free legal help instead. Arggggh!

With nothing to lose, I went to the bank to try to cancel the cheque without a police report. Finally luck was on my side. The bank receptionist was outraged at such outrageous scam and did not hesitate to start working on cancelling the cheque. Like my friends, she reiterated the fact that in France, an advance notice to enter anyone’s home is legally required and in event another similar attempt is made by anyone at all, I should never let the person in.

F and I debated going back again to the police station and insist on a report. However, with the cheque cancelled, the damage is minimal bar for the memory of a bad experience in our home and the frantic visits to different establishments on my own to find a way to redress the scam. Meanwhile, I’m also left to ponder, for what seems like a scam that happened often and where victims are usually the elderly, the foreigner, or the single female at home, why isn’t there a regulation to ban door-to-door service selling altogether?

Update 10 Feb: it seems cancelling the cheque three hours within the scam is insufficient as my cheque was cleared anyway. Since I am unable to get my bank advisor on the phone, I’ve emailed to ask for clarification. Not my day, again. :(

Update 11 Feb: overnight, it appears the amount paid out had been re-credited back to my bank account when I checked through online banking although I didn’t get any reply from my advisor with explanation. Still, a relief.



Category: Ma vie en France

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8 scribbles & notes

  1. Oh that is awful. People I know have had some sort of similar experience of door to door scamming, which is why now I never ever engage with anyone who comes door to door here. Maybe it’s not fair but I don’t feel my level of French is good enough to get the feeling I’m being scammed.

    • Lil says:

      Sarah, I’m sure your level of French is better than mine, but I completely see what you mean. Someone rang my door bell again yesterday and I resolutely ignored it.

  2. Lindsey says:

    This almost happened to me in the fall! A guy was going around knocking on all the doors, just waiting to see who was actually home in the morning. I heard the same speech but didn’t let him in because I was freaked out he was a thief. I’m sorry this happened to you, so violating :(

    • Lil says:

      I should have been more vigilant like you! I guess I’ve been lulled at how safe I feel in Paris since moving here, and I also forget that this building, unlike my previous ones, does not have a gardienne/reception to field the dodgy characters. It felt violating because it happened within a very personal space but I guess it could be much worse. Lesson learnt.

  3. med says:

    Oh crap…definitely a bad experience but it could have happened to anyone lil so dont be to harsh on yourself alright ;) consider the ‘damage’ incurred to be relatively minimal…could have been worse if X has other intention eh

    • Lil says:

      I’m working on moving on from the incident, although F now ponders if we are going to stay here for as long as we’ve initially planned. Maybe we both missed our old place a little and the incident doesn’t help either. And yes, I’m grateful it was a scam and not violent burglary or something.

  4. k_sam says:

    I’m so sorry this happened to you! I wrote a post warning people about guys like him a few years back, but I’m pretty sure it was before you moved to Paris. :(

    A word of advice from C (the ex-policeman) – install an eye hole in your door so you can always check who it is before opening. They only cost a few euros and are very easy to install (and you don’t need to ask permission before doing so).

    Also, it is (unfortunately) pretty common for police to refuse to take plaintes, but you can get around it by sending a letter directly to the procureur of the république. Doing so will mean that an investigator will be automatically assigned to your case, ie they can’t refuse it like they can at the police station. It doesn’t in any way mean that your case will be resolved, but sometimes it can make you feel better to at least have it reported.

    Lastly, this might not apply in your case since your French is pretty good, but in case it can help anyone else out there – when filing a complaint at the police station, you have the right to request a (free) interpreter.

    • Lil says:

      Thanks Sam – wish I had read that post before! We had eye hole in our previous apartment (but then we also had a gardienne) and I had no idea that we could install one ourselves without asking for permission. F and I did discuss about installing a chain. Thanks for the tips – we will check on our options.

      My bank advisor didn’t call/email me back but it seems overnight my account had been credited with the amount they cleared for the cheque. At least no financial lost in the end.

      And those are good information to know indeed. I do remember police refusing to take plainte from a friend who returned from holiday to find attempted (but failed) burglary at her place because “nothing was lost anyway”. Well, not to them but for my friend, that meant being afraid to go back to her apartment (in case the burglars re-try) until an expensive change of door was carried out.

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