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FBI says scamsters are taking advantage of red-hot rental market

Don’t put down money to a person you don’t know for an apartment you haven’t seen.

The FBI is warning of a rash of rental scams in Boston and other expensive housing markets.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Need more evidence of the squeeze on the Massachusetts housing market? An increasing number of people desperate to secure a place to rent are being duped out of thousands of dollars by online scammers, the FBI said Tuesday.

The anatomy of these ruses would normally raise the prospective renter’s eyebrow, but in this red hot market can be easily overlooked.

The scam tends to go something like this: A person searching for a rental spots a listing online and inquires by e-mail. Little does the prospective renter know, the listing is a real property, but was created by a swindler with a fake email address masquerading as the property owner. The scammer responds saying the “owner” is out of town, and that the only way to secure the property is to pay up front, before seeing the place. Once the money is sent, the listing disappears, and the victim never hears from the “owner” again.

“Scammers are cashing in on renters who need to act quickly for fear of missing out, and it’s costing consumers thousands of dollars, and in some cases, leaving them stranded,” Joseph Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division, said in a statement. “We are asking everyone to exercise caution.”

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Some property owners have been fooled, too. In those cases, a scammer poses as an apartment hunter inquiring about a listing and comes to a mutual agreement with the owner on a lease. Then the swindler sends a check, sometimes for too much, and sometimes for the correct amount before either asking for the overpayment to be returned or backing out of the agreement entirely. Either way, the scammer asks for their money back before their check hits the landlord’s bank, and if the landlord obliges, they’ll find that the check was a fake and the returned money has come directly out of their account.

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It’s a problem the FBI says has worsened over the last three years in particular, thanks in part to the quick rise of Internet property searching during the pandemic, when online-only apartment rentals proliferated. Short term Airbnb rental scams are also commonplace in today’s market.

Last year, some 11,500 people nationwide fell victim to rental scams, a 64 percent increase from 2020, though the real 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 losses. That 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 to a Craigslist ad in Rhode Island.

So how can you protect your money while apartment hunting this summer? Mostly common sense, the FBI said. Make sure you know the market rate for the kind of home you’re seeking, and be skeptical of listings that are drastically lower. Know who your landlord is before you sign. And most importantly, don’t make any payments on a place you haven’t seen in person.


Andrew Brinker can be reached at andrew.brinker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker.