“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 hardworking, 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.
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.
“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 they 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.
“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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.