Get ready to see U-Haul trucks clogging side streets and discarded furniture on sidewalks — moving season is fast approaching for residents of the Boston area. Numerous aspects of the moving process can be stressful, especially in a city where many leases end the same day. But in a rush to find a new apartment, residents shouldn’t slack off when it comes to scams.
Last month, the FBI’s Boston division warned the public after observing a rise in rental and real estate fraud. According to Joseph R. Bonavolonta, a special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston Division, law enforcement officials have seen a “significant increase” in the amount of money being lost by people looking for a good deal.
“Scammers take advantage of renters who have to act quickly for fear of missing out, and it’s costing consumers thousands of dollars and, in some cases, leaving them stranded,” he said in July. “We are asking everyone to exercise caution, especially over the next few months as people look to book last minute summer holidays.”
But what does a typical rental fraud look like and how can you avoid it? The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has provided some guidance.
The scams usually start with an online property listing that seems too good to be true: lots of amenities, low rents, and idyllic pictures. These listings are designed to look legitimate, according to the BBB, and scammers often use real photos and descriptions stolen from other sites.
When people respond to an ad to inquire about the property, a fake “landlord” often replies claiming they can’t show the property, perhaps because they’re out of town. Another common excuse is that they are in the hospital with a medical emergency.
According to BBB, for a scam like this to work, the person behind it needs to create a false sense of urgency. This can be done by telling the target of the scam that other people are also interested in the property, so immediate action is required. Fake landlords usually require a deposit and the first month’s rent to reserve the property.
Scammers could also claim that prospective buyers can view a property through a landlord, but only after paying a deposit. Sometimes those posing as landlords require prospective renters to fill out an application form that asks for sensitive information like social security numbers.
Once the scammers receive their money and documents, they become unresponsive and effectively disappear.
Another common rental scam, according to the FBI, can target people who themselves advertise rental properties online. A scammer will contact the person listing the property and agree on a price. They will then forward a check to the victim for the bail. Usually this check will be made out for the required amount and the scammer will ask that the remainder be returned to them. Occasionally the check will be written for the correct amount, but the scammer will back out of the lease and demand a refund.
Because banks don’t typically withhold these funds, the FBI says the victim is given immediate access to the money and is fooled into believing the scammer’s check has been cashed. Ultimately, these checks are exposed as fraudulent and the victim is held liable by the bank for any losses.
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center provides a way for people to report cybercrimes. Information from this website has shown a steady increase in casualties reported by victims of this type of crime both nationally and locally over the past three years.
Last year, 11,578 people reported losing $350,328,166 due to property or rental scams across the country. That’s a 64% increase from 2020, according to the FBI. The Boston Division, which includes all of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, found that 415 victims in 2021 reported $13,424,269 in losses . This is an increase of 27% over the previous year.
The actual losses people faced are most likely much higher, according to the FBI, as many are reluctant to report they were scammed.
The BBB has shared some tips to help people avoid scams:
- Watch out for good deals. Scammers lure you in by promising low rents, extra amenities, and a great location. If the price seems much better than elsewhere, it may be a scam.
- Search for similar properties online. Do a quick search for the scammer’s listing, email address, or phone number. If you find the same ad in other cities, that’s a big red flag.
- See the property in person. Don’t send money to someone you’ve never met for an apartment you haven’t seen. If you can’t see an apartment or house yourself, ask someone you trust to go and make sure it’s the advertisement.
- Don’t pay a stranger with money transfer apps. Many scammers are now asking for payments through peer-to-peer apps instead of bank transfers or prepaid debit/gift cards. Only use these apps with people you know. It’s okay to pay a landlord you trust with Venmo, Zelle, or another P2P app, but don’t use this payment method to secure an apartment or pay a deposit.
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