Friday, 24 October 2008

Renting an apartment from Izumi von Hardenberg, Beware.

UPDATE: This story had been up for a few hours and already people have been coming looking for "Izumi von Hardenberg complaint". There seem to be many of us! Please leave a comment if you've been ripped off by Izumi.

I have been meaning to write up my recent experience trying to rent an apartment for a week in New York through an Izumi von Hardenberg of the website (also operating through, advertising on, craigslist, and many other places). This is a frustrating episode that takes a good half hour to tell in person and is filled with twists too funny and weird to believe.

Photo by Flickr user Ed YourdonAt the same time, I wanted to get this information out to other potential victims of Izumi's crazy bait and switch antics and perhaps save someone from what we had to go through (and possibly save them a lot of money). There are other reports on Izumi von Hardenberg on Rip-off Report (a search for Izumi von Hardenberg on the website shows up more and yet more can be found with the alternative spelling Izumi von Hardenburg), based on what we experienced I believe every single one of them.

Izumi advertised an apartment at on Craigslist. I emailed her on September 8 asking about availability from October 2 and she confirmed it was available but suggested upgrading to another property she called Most luxurious Times Square 3-bedroom 2 bathrooms Apartment No. 1, quoting it at $440 per night for three people.

I confirmed I wished to book. She suddenly increased the price to $460 per night, claiming that information on her website was out of date (conveniently ignoring that she had quoted the rate herself in email a day prior). After a bit of negotiation she agreed on a price of $3075 for the whole week (works out $440 per night) and requested that I send her a deposit of $1050 on PayPal (the deposit was to be 30%).

I felt uneasy simply sending money to a random address. I asked that she at least send me a PayPal request specifying what apartment the deposit was for, ideally from an email address associated with the website I was booking through.
"No need to worry we do this as business, we have many apartments, just sent money request email us after you pay. Izumi",
came the reply.

Following her PayPal request I sent her $1100 to secure the most luxurious apartment on September 11.

On September 19 Izumi wrote requesting our names ASAP for authorization in the building.

On September 23 suddenly this message arrived:
Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me - 10/2-9 SORRY THE CHANGE OF APARTMENT N4K
We're sorry we have landload problem at the apartment you booked, can you instead take a 3bedroom 2 full bathrooms 43rd street and 8th avenue? It is basically the same, except for 4 block ddiffence and it is close to the Times Square . We're sorry let us know ASAP

I think I can let our subsequent email exchange speak for itself.

Andrej to Thecheap, Sep 24
Hi. This is a very unpleasant surprise. Can you please send photos and description of the other apartment?

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Sep 25
Can you email me about the pictures tomorrow? I will get them then

Andrej to Thecheap, Sep 26
Hi, I am emailing about the pictures.
At this stage we have little choice due to timing - we will take the apartment unless there is some major problem with it.
Please let me know how and when we will get the keys. We are arriving at Newark at 1 pm on Oct 2 and making our way to the apartment.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Sep 27 - Re: 10/2-9 SORRY THE CHANGE OF APARTMENT 3w $380 and 58th 2br $380
We're so sorry We lost the 3bed as well. So now what we have available is 58th st 2br 2nd ave, 3 nights 10/2-5 $380/night and 10/5-9 2br 47th st and 9th ave, also $380/night. If you can book this I'll arrange transportation between apartments. Pictures attached is 47th st and 9th ave 2br

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Sep 27 - 10/2-9 I'm working on if you could stay at 3bed 2 bath whole time
Please email me your phone number. 3bed 2 bath whole time, as originally planned, so please give me 1 day and I'll email as soon as I know. Please fill out meantime.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Sep 27 - 10/2-9 n4k 10/2-9 3p 3bed 2 bath $3075 including cleaning deposit $1050 Everything is set at this apartment
Everything is set at this apartment 360 west 43rd st, apt.n4k Please fill out below, do you need airport pick up?

Andrej to Thecheap, Sep 28
Hi Izumi,
Thank you for sorting this out.
If you are charging us the same price, we expect the apartment to be of the same standard as originally agreed (high speed internet connection, conveniently located near public transportation – access to many major subway lines is available within few minutes, luxury 600-thread count 100% Egyptian cotton sateen sheets and premium Avanti towels, views). Please confirm this.
Regarding the airport transfer, how much do you charge?
Kind regards,

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Sep 28
Hi, the problem is the internet, since it is a new apartment, cable is not there yet, is this a problem with you? You can get internet at starbacks, about $35, which I will pay and you get access for the whole month, or I'm sure there is wireless from neighbors in the apartment, let me know ASAP. If this is absolutely important to you then we may have to change the apartment.
(high speed internet connection, This is a new apartment and cable service is not installed yet, but I believe you can take neighbor's wireless conecction --Is this very important to you?
conveniently located near public transportation – access to many major subway lines is available within few minutes, Yes, 42 nd and 7th ave, 7 lines there, 2 blocks away
luxury 600-thread count 100% Egyptian cotton sateen sheets and premium Avanti towels, Yes
views). Just city view, 4th floor
Please confirm this. Neark $55 each way

Andrej to Thecheap, Sep 28
Hi, we will be three persons each with a computer and will need to connect at least twice per day each. If we can reliably connect to a wifi in the building, we will be fine but if not it will be a major inconvenience. In that case we will need three starbucks memberships and some compensation for the coffees we will have to keep buying to be able to sit around.
Also no cable means no TV?? Either way a discount is in order, since you had advertised views, roof deck and what not.
Regarding the airport pickup, if the price you quoted is per vehicle (not per person), we would like to order the pickup

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Sep 28
Please contact Adonis for pick up, $55 for the entire car. We'll check out the wifi, and I'll buy you 3 starbucks connection, and I'll give you $10/day for coffee. However this is more expensive apartment, rent there is $5000/month since it is closer to Times Squrae. Is this o.k with you?

Andrej to Thecheap, Sep 28
Thanks for the prompt reply.
1. How or where do I contact Adonis?
2. Ok on the rest
Best regards,

Great, right? Izumi did cause us a little stress but she did get us sorted in the end. WRONG.

On Oct 1, a day before our arrival, Thecheap Apartmentsnyc wrote:
Sorry somebody who booked 8 months ago contacted me today. I didn't have them in my booking, but they did pay 8 month ago. So I have n4k 3bed available 1 day, buts can you take other apartment apt. 1 below 10/3-9, it is not as nice or as big, but only $360/night and it does have high-speed internet ready. We're very soory, just let us know:Pictures attached

Andrej to Thecheap Apartmentsnyc, Oct 1
Hi, Ms. von Hardenberg or whoever sends these unsigned emails,
This is beyond belief.
Please provide us with what you have repeatedly promised or provide us with adequate compensation for having to exchange over 20 (!) emails to book an apartment to find out two days before arrival that the fourth apartment you have offered us is not available and you intend to move us between two apartments neither of which meets the criteria of what you originally confirmed and took over $1000 Paypal deposit for!
This is the worst accommodation service I have experienced.
Please let me know ASAP.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Oct 1
adequate payment, how much you can pay for the 2br below? normally $360 the 3bed is $460/night, how much total are you willing to pay?

Andrej to Thecheap Apartmentsnyc, Oct 1
Hi, we are willing to pay the $3075 including cleaning charge for a 3 bedroom apartment of the standard you originally took our deposit for! We were not looking to save more money.
We do not wish to move apartments and we were not looking for a 2-bedroom. We will stay the week for $1500 and just forget about this whole experience or we will pay you the full price listed for this 2BR place on your website ($299.99 plus $20 per night per person more for more than 2 people), which makes it $2240 but will feel at liberty to publicize this ordeal in full detail.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me
Hi, I will look for a better place to stay because I can't do $2240, give me till tomorrow I just asked my assistant to look for a place.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Oct 1 - 10/2-9 Really sorry we messed up
Really sorry we messed up, right now only apartment we have is 2br below 10/6-9. I will find a place for 10/2-6, if Ibed is o.k, then I have a place 6th ave and 50th st, sleeps 5 people 10/2-6 and if you can take the 2br then we can do $250/night. Just so sorry our booking system got so messed up. Or I can recommend you a hotel 10/2-6, and I pay you $100 relocation fee, just let me know ASAP, we still have time to locate an apartment 10/2-6 Really Really sorry.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc, Oct 1 - 9/2-9 Very odd proposal 4 days $900 Can you call me 917 362 9280?
Very add proposal, and I know you'll be very inconvinienced, however the price is really good. We can do 3bed 2 bath 1 night 9/2, then 2br 34th st 3 nights 10/6-9 and for the total of 4 nights I can do $900 Then I'll find you a hotel 3 nights. The best is priceline, you can pick up stuff starting $200/night, even if you take 2 rooms, still like $400, let me know if you need my help locating a hotel. We're really sorry to put you through this. Sincerely apologize. Can you call me?

Andrej to Thecheap, Oct 1
I just tried to call. It is now the morning here and you're probably asleep.
I insist you provide us with accommodation for the seven days we have paid a deposit for. We will move once, if necessary.
My phone number is XXX XXX XXXXXX, call me as soon as possible.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Oct 1 - 10/2-9 I found a place for 3 nights 10/2-6
W18th st and 8th ave only $300/night, so your total is $1800 oppesed to %3075 It is inconvinient to move, but you save lots of money you can use it for dinner etc. Let me know ASAp, I have to make a deposit to secure this

Andrej to Thecheap, Oct 1
We have money for dinner. You do not mention size of place, etc.

Andrej to Thecheap, Oct 1
Hi, I have been trying to call at the number you sent me yesterday since about 8:15 your time this morning.
We will take any reasonable apartment you can get us. Please call me at +XXX XXX XXXXXX ASAP.

Finally, after hours of trying (from 8 am Izumi's time, got through to her about 2:30 pm) we spoke. I was livid. Izumi suggested we take a 3-bedroom for one night, find a hotel for the next three nights and move back to a 2-bedroom for the final three night. "You find us a hotel!" I insisted. "You took over a thousand dollars as deposit for a week, now you are taking no responsibility!". Izumi hung up. I called back. She never responded to anything I said, beyond saying "Right, right, right, right, right" a few times.

She then suggested she would book a one bedroom apartment for the three in-between nights for us. I said ok, if the apartment is of decent standard and there is room for the three of us (adult males) to sleep. She said something about sofa beds and then asked if one of us could sleep on an air mattress. I said fine but then she said we would have to pay for it, because she would have to buy it and bring it there...

After we hung up, Izumi called back. She politely asked that when we arrive at the apartment N4K on 360 west 43rd street, we should not tell the doormen we were renting anything. "Just say you are going to N4K. Call me if there is a problem." This reassuring exchange of course meant we were unsure the whole way on the plane whether we would even get into the building... This blog post, titled Beware of Izumi von Hardenberg, explains the reasons clearly, though.

Anyway, this was the final arrangement:
Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Oct 1
I booked 1br, they have my credit card info, so please don't cancel:If you have any problem with this call me 917 362 9280 while your stay, but we already comfirmed everything right now, you have nothing to pay except $900
1.10/2 360 west 43rd st apt.n4k Alley will meet you there Call Adonis from the airport, if your flight is late you have to call adonis and aleey, otherwise $30/hour late fee check out before 11:00a.m
2. 10/3-6 1br balance $900 cash 304 west 18th, apt.1 11:00a.m at the apartment
XXXXXXX XXXXX-Contact (o) XXX-XXX-XXXX check out 12:30p.m
3.10/6-9 605 2nd avee, apt. 3 check in 12:45p.m 33rd and 34th street, please press apt.3 combination key downstairs 6052
alley will meet you there, call him if you're late check out 11:00a.m 10/9, leave the keys on the table, DOOR UNLOCKED

We were met at the airport by Adonis, the driver recommended by Izumi. A really nice and friendly guy (mentioned favorably by others in one of the rip off reports) took us to the first apartment. On the way he called Izumi's assistant Alley, who was supposed to meet us there. Funnily enough Alley had no idea there were guests checking in - he said he was there just to take pictures. This probably explained the perfunctory cleaning obvious on our arrival, as well as the obviously reused sheets...

Next day instead of sightseeing we made our way to the one bedroom apartment. No one was there to meet us at this decrepit looking Hell's Kitchen building a superintendent simply let us into the apartment. The place was small, contained just one double bed in the bedroom and two extendable sofas, which seemed too old to extend. Moreover, there was obviously not enough room to actually extend both.

We waited around for 25 minutes. I called the number given to me by Izumi two or three times but there was only voicemail. I called Izumi. "How come there is no one there?" she asked. She asked for the number for the owner she had given me. "Izumi, you will call me back? We are waiting here, we have other stuff to do." "Yeah," she said.

We waited for another 45 minutes, anger building up. At 12.15 we split, checked in to a Starbucks, bought wifi access and started looking for a hotel. We ended up at the Sheraton Manhattan for three nights (later moved to Ameritania near Times Square).

We tried to get a portion of our deposit back through the PayPal dispute resolution procedure (#PP-557-215-363).
"Our investigation into your claim is complete. As stated in our User Agreement, the claims process only applies to the shipment of goods. It does not apply to complaints about the attributes or quality of goods received. Therefore, we are unable to reverse this transaction or issue a refund." (I resent how PayPal handled this - their dispute form contains no fields covering payments for services, so I had to check weird boxes relating to goods and had no way of knowing my claim was lost from the start due to these choices).

I have emailed Izumi today asking for $700 back (the $1,100 deposit less a payment for the one night we did stay at her apartment). I will also, based on one rip off reporter's recommendations, try to contact PayPal again. Friends of mine have recommended a New York-based lawyer who will review the case and see if there may be legal recourse. In addition I have thought about writing to coop boards at the buildings whose addresses I know that Ms. von Hardenberg is renting out the apartments (most likely illegally).

I had never thought I could fall for this kind of scam, having extensive experience with the short-term apartment rental industry here in Bratislava. Although expensive, this is indeed a lesson for me. I had seen some of the rip off reports before I sent Izumi von Hardenberg money (unfortunately only those under von HardenbErg, not the ones under von HardenbUrg) and actually felt reassured (since they indicated Izumi was for real, even if she smoked inside her non-smoking apartments). Finally, there was a definite cognitive bias at work - I wanted to believe in this Most luxurious New York apartment even though I had a feeling in the back of my head that it was too good to be true.

We still had a great stay in New York. Even if we end up not getting any of our money back, I will remember Izumi warmly for the lesson she's taught me.

If you've managed to read this far, please help! Link to this post with the anchor containing the name Izumi von Hardenberg so that other people will be able to read this if they Google Izumi.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Google to Slovak Adwords advertisers: cancel your account with us now!

Ass Wipes by Flickr user Teamperks
Google emailed its Slovak Adwords advertisers today to tell them that before the country changes its official currency to Euro on January 1, 2009 they must cancel their accounts and create new ones manually.

"Since you Adwords account uses the currency SKK, we request that you cancel this account and create a new account using the currency EUR" (my translation). And if you do not do this by November 30, your ads will stop showing.

Your new account cannot use the same login as your old account (unless you change it for the old account first), you will lose whatever history your ads have accumulated and have to reenter all your campaigns manually.

Come again, guys? I know we are not the largest market in the world but still, saving thousands of your customers
  • hours of frustration
  • losses stemming from each ad having to start anew without its history and quality score
  • hassle of not being able to access your account history
could be worth you while.

I think some advertisers will not bother - the kind of people who have had a small campaign running unchanged with a relatively small budget for months without monitoring or changing it. But there are some websites which have little choice and must use ads on Google to remain competitive. Their owners will have to give in to Google's caprice.

Google, let it be known that your failure to invest the day or two of programmer time required to migrate the accounts to the new currency without inconveniencing thousands of users is BAD KARMA.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Five things I disliked in New York

1. All the ice
It's not healthy! I used to go to a gym. The owner once saw me drinking cold water while working out and came to yell at me. He said drinking cold water was like pouring cold water in a furnace. I can sort of see the logic. In traditional Chinese medicine (which I am a fan off) cold is also seen as potentially harmful (of course, my mother knew that long before I met my first acupuncturist). Since so many Americans don't even have health insurance, they should lay off the ice for their own good.

2. Aggressive salesmen
"Hi Sir, How are you doing today?" "Fine. Thanks." "Do you have any questions?" Shit. Dude, if I had any questions, I would have come up to you and asked. Right? Now you've actually chased me away from this section of the shop. I know it's arrogant of me but I just tend to assume the sales people will be there when I need them without introductions and the like.

3. Hidden taxes
This happened to me over and over in New York: I decided to buy an item and it turned out more expensive than labelled. I bought a computer at J&R, received a special discount and still ended up paying more than the original price. Or I would get the correct change ready to try to get rid of all the useless one cent coins just to find out I will actually end up with more of those coins. I know the taxes go to the state and not to the seller but still, why not just include them on the label? In our neck of the woods, THE STATE would step in and make this mandatory (the way mobile operators can not advertise prices without the VAT included).

Reservoir Dogs by Flickr user Varanaus4. Tipping
In 1997 I was in New York as a poor student. At one point we simply could not afford leaving the (then) requisite 15% tip. The waiter came running after us to ask very aggressively if there was anything wrong with the service he had provided. These days, many places will add on a tip (18% I saw this time) automatically for parties of five or more, or six or more people. I understand that waiters are paid less than the minimum wage. But to me the tip should remain an instrument to reward extra effort, not an entitlement. Like with hidden taxes decent waiter wages (perhaps reflecting the pretty much mandatory 10% tip level) could well be included in the sticker price. As a side note, only on my last day I realised the percentage should be calculated from the PRE-TAX price so I had been actually tipping more than I wanted to the whole time.

5. Overwhelming size
I will admit it. I am bumpkinly (definition: awkwardly simple and provincial, as in "bumpkinly country boys"). I used to think of myself as an urban dweller but defining urban on Bratislava's scale. In New York I felt outnumbered. So many cool places to go (NOLITA, anyone?), so much to do, so much going on, so much choice in everything... I think if I lived there I would end up becoming a very local resident of one of the neighbourhoods. But the idea of so much going on so nearby all the time frustrated me.

Coming up next on this blog's New York debriefing series: getting screwed out of a $1,100 deposit by an Izumi von Hardenberg who had promised us The Most Luxurious Three Bedroom Apartment in Times Square.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Five things I liked in New York and miss in Bratislava

1. Free water in restaurants
I am a fan of good hydration. Here in Bratislava you have to keep ordering small (0.25l) bottles of water at EUR 1-2. In the US they charge more for your meal but keep your glass full (although I wouldn't mind if they eased up on the ice a little).

2. Nice food priced reasonably
Unlike here you do not need to eat at posh places to get great food. Moreover, there is always not one great restaurant of each kind but several to choose from (which, of course, explains why they are priced reasonably). I ate outstanding Thai, Ethiopian or Sushi, all at places that weren't expensive.

3. Regulated taxis
Never thought that I, the free market champion, would admit this but taxi regulation seems to work. Unlike here in Bratislava you will not be picked up by a rattling Skoda Felicia and you know what the price will be if you hail any of the thousands of yellow cabs. The drivers always knew the way and the bullet-proof barrier allowed you not to converse if you did not wish to.

4. Easy credit card payment everywhere
You can easily charge a cab ride, charge up your Metrocard to use on the subway or pay for a bottle of water. For smaller purchases you don't even need to bother with entering a PIN Code or signing, you just swipe and go.

5. Compliments from random strangers
This happened a number of times during my 12 days in the US. The bartender the day after my arrival told me I had a great jacket, as did a TSA screener who helped me put it through x-ray (credit belongs to my wife Sona who chose it for me). A barrista at Starbucks thought my Threadless Urban Goddess t-shirt was "dope" (pick one up for only $9 right now) and a Northwest flight attendant told me she loved the hat Yuval gave me. Two hicks on the subway asked a young man with siliconecollagen-filled lips for the name of the next stop and then complimented him on his sunglasses. Couldn't really imagine strangers in Bratislava complimenting you on anything.

Look out soon for my list of five things I disliked in New York.