10 January 2012

Escaping A Tacky Wallpaper Scam in Russia

Our new kitchen wallpaper, safely up after our scamming adventure.


We recently got out of a possible scammers’ trap just before it slammed shut.  It all had to do with whether to pay a deposit before work was finished, and overall sloppy business practice.

Time to wallpaper!

Back around 1995 Larissa sent her daughter money from America to put up new kitchen and bathroom wallpaper.  We arrived in 2000 to an attractive kitchen but with the toilet screaming an electric metal reflective ambiance. So this winter it now seemed a good time to cater to our own tastes and fix things with new paper. Remember, Russians generally wallpaper their walls, not paint them.

How not to find good workers...

The woman we used for wallpapering before was in the Ukraine on vacation, so Larissa looked at some newspapers to get a a range of prices.  She found small display ads for home repair... here it’s called in Russian remont.... for windows, doors, wallpapering, you name it.  Also there were ads of just one or two lines including abbreviations followed by a cell phone number.

Larissa was impatient, and wanted the wallpaper up quickly, so she called a number from one of the short ads and arranged an appointment on a Monday at 5 PM.

A poor estimate...

Two men came to our apartment that evening to give an estimate.  They said 10,000 rubles would include cleaning and smoothing the walls, prep work, and wallpapering... along with some tiling on the lower part of the toilet walls.  I insisted one of them sit down and write out this estimate and sign it.

Written estimates are rare for small work in Russia, where being business-like isn’t considered necessary.  I should have asked them to list internal passport numbers and print their full name below his scratchy initials.  In Russia, people invariably sign with initials or fragments of names. so John Hancock would be something like J Han k.

Really, we had no idea if they had an office, where they lived, or how to be sure to be able to contact them.

Bad business practices...

In Russia home repair men don’t have printed business cards, estimate forms, or  bonding and insurance.  With potentially violent competition, corrupt and greedy  officials, and no Western business sense, things are not wrapped very tight here... the direct opposite to how things are done in Germany, Finland, or the United States.

This Wild West, wide-open sloppy approach to doing business leaves the consumer vulnerable to scams, and sometimes exposed to dangerous people.  These two men were young, tall, and strong, spoke good Russian, and seemed to be adequate for the job of shifting cabinets and  fridge, and getting the wallpapering finished quickly.  They were not ethnic Russians but we didn’t want to exclude them for something beyond their control.

Off to a poor start and an ill considered deposit understanding...

They implied that at least one of them would be working at our apartment the next day.  Instead, Tuesday morning after 10 AM a scrawny young guy looking as if he had slept on the subway, was the only one to appear.  He said he came to remove the old paper and do the tiling, and that a woman and her husband and would come in the afternoon to start the wallpapering.  No one else arrived the rest of the day.

Starting around noon Larissa got a few calls from one of the original men saying he needed a deposit to continue the work.  Larissa had said in the rush of words the night before that we could pay 50% when half the work was done.  Even with eleven years hearing and speaking Russian, a rush of words is one way to get around me easily!

Red flags start popping up!

The Good Wife told him it was too early to collect money as the task was nowhere near half finished.  His request was insistent, and so they agreed he could come by towards the evening. This felt like a potentially threatening situation to me. I reminded Larissa about Red Flags... when if you listen to your intuition you feel something isn’t quite right.

Larissa called her daughter to get her reaction. The daughter-in-law said to never give money before the job is completed.  In the 90s some friends of hers got cheated just this way.  So we agreed to stop everything before we were in too deep.

It seemed to us they wanted to put us in the middle of a wallpaper mess, as a way to manipulate some prepayment. Then, it would be easy for them to disappear and we would lose the deposit.

The shaky people disappear...

The young guy finished his task that day, but left his bag with a few tools in it.  We put 500 rubles in the bag and planned to give it all to him but, although he called a few times to arrange when, he never came back for his bag.  And the man demanding a deposit, didn’t come to see us that evening.

Things worked out all right

We contacted friends who have wallpapering friends, who had done good work before.  We  agreed to have everything completed over the next weekend, for the same 10,000 rubles.  This husband- wife team wore pullovers, were skilled and careful, and gave us three tips...

1. Never call anyone for Remont who doesn’t list a landline number. It’s hard to find people if something goes wrong when they only have cell phone numbers. It’s just too easy for them to disappear after they scam or steal, or worse.

2. Never give a deposit before or during work... especially when the work should be finished in just a few days.

3. Try to only hire people who have done good work for people you know.

Be thankful that where you live things are probably done in a much more business-like way... and remember the Three Tips... It’s OK to not trust people until they earn your  confidence... anywhere in the world!



  1. Hmm, seems like the same the world over to me. These things go on in the UK and Spain. I like your tips and I hoipe people follow them.

    1. Hi Rob,

      Since the wallpaper fiasco, we decided to refurbish two easy chairs. The man who insisted on coming to us for an estimate showed us some fabric with a take it or leave it attitude.

      We said no, and then he insisted we pay him for the estimate! We just showed him the door.

      Thanks for commenting!



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