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Is that apartment real? Healey warns of virtual rental scams

A rent deposit slot at an apartment complex in Tucker, Ga., on July 21, 2020. As an eviction crisis has seemed increasingly likely this summer, everyone in the housing market has made the same plea to Washington: Send money — lots of it — that would keep renters in their homes and landlords afloat.
A rent deposit slot at an apartment complex in Tucker, Ga., on July 21, 2020. As an eviction crisis has seemed increasingly likely this summer, everyone in the housing market has made the same plea to Washington: Send money — lots of it — that would keep renters in their homes and landlords afloat.MELISSA GOLDEN/NYT

With apartment searches going more online and virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic, real estate agents and Massachusetts’ top law enforcement official are warning would-be renters about a costly bait-and-switch.

Attorney General Maura Healey said her office is seeing a surge in scams where people advertise apartments they don’t own and rip off a month’s worth of rent, or more, from tenants who are eager to find a place but wary of touring it in person right now. She equated it to online dating, where someone posts fake pictures to lure people into sharing personal information — only in this case the victim is sharing a security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment that doesn’t exist.

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“It’s sort of the equivalent of ‘catfishing,’” Healey said, using a common term for online dating scams. “Here it hurts people who are looking to rent apartments. It hurts owners and hard-working, honest, real estate agents, too.”

It’s not new, exactly. Most anyone who’s looked for an apartment on Craigslist has seen their share of dubious ads. But with Boston-area renters scattered by the pandemic, and many landlords wary of showing occupied units right now, a sharp increase in virtual apartment hunting has created more opportunities for these sort of scams to flourish.

“Heartless scams like these cannot be tolerated,” said Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which is partnering with Healey on the issue. “If you have any doubt about a real estate listing, do not send any money before you are sure you’re working with a licensed realtor.”

Typically, Healey and others say, scam artists will use online photos of a legitimate listing to create an ad for a fake apartment at slightly below-market rent, then try to lure would-be tenants to send a deposit to lock it down, sight unseen. Once the money is sent, it’s hard to recover. And the scamsters themselves could be located anywhere and are largely untraceable.

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“It’s straight-up stealing,” Healey said. “It’s just a scam.”

It happened on a listing belonging to Dino Confalone, an agent with Gibson Sotheby’s in Cambridge. He was called recently by someone about a house he was listing for sale in Quincy. Confalone’s photos — a detailed, room-by-room visual tour of the beach cottage — had been used for a fake ad that listed the house as a rental. When a would-be tenant grew suspicious and drove by for a look, he saw Confalone’s “For Sale” sign in the yard and called the agent, who in turn alerted Healey’s office.

“It’s embarrassing and it makes me look really bad,” said Confalone, who is president-elect of the Greater Boston Association of Realtors. “Scammers are using my professional photos to rip people off.”

In this particular case, no money changed hands, but Confalone said he knows of other victims who are out thousands of dollars, with little hope of getting it back. Healey said her office would prosecute any case where it can press charges. But, first, she urged prevention.

That means watching for poorly written ads or requests for cash upfront, she said. It may mean hiring a broker, even if that’s more expensive. And it likely means pushing to see apartments in person before signing a lease, even if — especially if — the landlord sounds reluctant to let you.

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“Go meet the landlord. Go see the place,” Healey said. “You want to make sure you’re dealing with someone who’s legit.”


Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.