FBI says crooks are taking advantage of booming rental market

Need more evidence of the pressure on the Massachusetts housing market? A growing number of people desperate to find a place to rent are being scammed out of thousands of dollars by online scammers, the FBI said Tuesday.

The anatomy of these tricks would normally raise the eyebrows of the potential tenant, but in this hot market, it can easily be overlooked.

The scam tends to look like this: a person looking for a rental spots an ad online and asks by email. The potential tenant doesn’t know it, the ad is for real estate, but was created by a scammer with a fake email address posing as the landlord. The scammer responds by saying the “owner” is out of town and the only way to secure the property is to pay upfront, before seeing the place. Once the money is sent, the list disappears and the victim never hears from the “owner” again.

“Scammers take advantage of tenants who must act quickly for fear of missing out, and this costs consumers thousands of dollars and, in some cases, leaves them stranded,” said Joseph Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the division of the FBI in Boston. in a report. “We ask everyone to exercise caution.”

Some owners have also been duped. In these cases, a scammer poses as an apartment hunter inquiring about a listing and comes to a mutual agreement with the landlord on a lease. Then the scammer sends a check, sometimes too high, and sometimes for the correct amount before demanding a refund of the overpayment or backing out of the deal altogether. Either way, the scammer asks for his money before his the check arrives at the owner’s bank, and if the owner obliges, he will discover that the check was a forgery and that the money returned came directly from his account.

It’s a problem the FBI says has worsened over the past three years in particular, thanks in part to the rapid increase in internet property searches during the pandemic, when apartment rentals in line only have proliferated. Airbnb short-term rental scams are also commonplace in today’s market.

Some 11,500 people nationwide fell victim to rental scams last year, a 64% increase from 2020, though the true figure is likely much higher, according to FBI figures . In the FBI’s Boston Division – which encompasses Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts – 415 victims reported millions in casualties. This included a Rhode Island man who lost $6,000 on a fake listing in Cambridge and an Idaho man who lost a $21,756 advance from his employer on a Craigslist ad in Rhode Island.

So how can you protect your money while you’re looking for an apartment this summer? Mostly common sense, the FBI said. Make sure you know the market rate for the type of home you are looking for and be wary of listings that are considerably lower. Know who your landlord is before signing. And most importantly, don’t make any payment on a place you haven’t seen in person.

Andrew Brinker can be contacted at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker.

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