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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Flat-Swapping in Moscow: A Risky Business

xAt least 32 Muscovites were killed during the first quarter of this year after they had sold or swapped their apartments and more than 1,750 others are still unaccounted for, city police say. The police launched investigations in 49 cases involving apartment deals in the January-March period, 32 of them for murders and the other 17 involving extortion, swindles and hostage-taking, said Alexander Gorbachev, deputy head of the Moscow police department dealing with missing persons. This is a sharp increase over the 10 cases that the department probed a year ago in which people disappeared after selling their apartments with the stipulation they could live in them until death. With apartment prices in Moscow measured in tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, owners of privatized apartments are lucrative targets for criminals. Such crimes are bound to spread because, "after life itself, today there is nothing of higher value to people than real estate," Gorbachev said this week. In one instance, two women -- Tatyana Krutova, 29 and her mother Antonina, 55 -- were brutally murdered and Krutova's daughter Lena, 9, was severely injured, according to police records. Yury Dorokhin, 28, a Ukrainian citizen pleaded guilty to having murdered the women. In his letter of confession, Dorokhin said he started a romantic relationship with Krutova, proposed to her in August 1993 and convinced her to sell her apartment to his accomplice, Andrei Serov. He then confessed that he took the women to Ukraine and killed them at a countryside picnic. Gorbachev said single pensioners, heavy drinkers, and persons with mental disorders are the main people at risk of being victimized by apartment scams. "But you and I can become victims just as easily," he added. During the first three months of the year, at least 1,750 Muscovites never arrived at their new residence locations after handing over their apartments, Gorbachev said. He said his department asked the city computer database that monitors every apartment deal in the capital to provide a list of transactions involving people belonging to groups at risk. After checking 9,697 persons, Gorbachev's team was left with the 1,750 missing, he said. Many victims suffer from naivete, issuing notarized authorizations to untrustworthy "agents" to swap or sell their apartment, Gorbachev said. When such victims find out they have been cheated out of their residences, there is nothing the police can do because all the transactions were perfectly legal. It is not difficult for investigators to find out whether residents who gave up their apartments actually arrived at their new addresses because all residential transfers are strictly monitored by the passport service. Under the current regulations, people who change their residence are also required to change the propiska, or residence registration. To cancel the previous propiska, one must produce proof from the local police of the future residence verifying their consent to issue a new propiska. The propiska, which for decades was a permanent fixture in the Soviet Union, still plays an important role in Russian life. People who have no residence registration are considered homeless and cannot enjoy any social benefits, such as use of a home telephone or education or health care for their families. Yury Sharogorov, deputy head of the city passport bureau, which functions as one of the Moscow police departments, said all residents of Moscow and the Moscow region are required to supply verification documents to terminate their former residence registrations. Residents who intend to move to one of the former Soviet republics also state their new address in their applications. Those leaving for Western countries produce other departure forms where the new address is included, he said. Sharogorov denied the possibility of local passport officers changing residents' propiski illegally without carrying out the regulations. But Gorbachev said passport police are heavily involved in crimes involving apartment scams and accused them of accepting bribes for under-the-table deals for propiska registration. "Right now I have a passport police lieutenant locked up in a cell for serious apartment swindles," Gorbachev said. Mayor Yury Luzhkov issued an order last week requiring the police to draw up an official list of groups at risk of apartment scams. The order, which Gorbachev called "plain nonsense," asked the Municipal Dwelling department to run in-depth checks if such people participate in real estate deals and ask them to produce approvals from social benefits departments and guardians. "All this means is that the potential criminals will have a few more officials to bribe to get the necessary papers," Gorbachev said, adding that officials at the bureaus involved, such as housing maintenance departments, have fixed bribery charges for such "services."