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When COVID-19 hit, so did the rental scammers

News Renting Boston Quincy
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Scammers are stealing listings and posting them at a discount to get deposits. iStockphoto

In times of trouble, it is an unfortunate reality that scammers will target the vulnerable. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board have received complaints from management companies, sales agents, and potential renters about fake residential listings posted online. The listings typically included contact information for a legitimate real estate agent, but scammers posted the ads on Craigslist and requested a deposit through mobile apps like Venmo. Renter fraud increased nearly 30 percent from March to August, the credit agency TransUnion reported late last year.

“It comes down to people not wanting to pay a commission, which I understand,’’ said Dino Confalone, an associate director at Sotheby’s International Realty in Cambridge. “But if you work with a broker, odds are they aren’t going to take advantage of you.’’

People still needed to move into homes or apartments — sometimes without stepping foot in them — at the beginning of the pandemic, during the state’s strictest lockdown orders. Sotheby’s has a legal process to protect renters and buyers during a sight-unseen transaction, but scammers took advantage of those who may not have known that.

A scam artist on Craigslist used photos of a Quincy home Confalone was selling to advertise a fraudulent rental. A potential renter felt uneasy about the Craiglist user’s Venmo request for a half-month’s rent as a deposit and was able to find Confalone through the actual listing.

“Scammers were taking our work and putting it on Craigslist at a lower level and convincing people these houses for sale were on the market for rent and ran with it,’’ Confalone said.

The scam even sent a realtor scrambling to accommodate someone who wasn’t as lucky as the would-be Quincy renter.

DJ Gendreau, a realtor with Douglas Elliman Real Estate, took on a client who arrived in Boston only to find the apartment he thought he put a deposit on was occupied. The listing the victim found used photos from when the home had been for sale. Gendreau showed the client legitimate rentals.

“We filled out an application, and I got him approved and moved in by the end of that day,’’ Gendreau said. His client sought restitution, but the outcome of his case is not known.

The attorney general’s office advises would-be renters to work with a real estate agent instead of relying solely on online listings, and it also recommends that those who have been victimized file a complaint with the FBI.

So how do you avoid the real estate equivalent of getting catfished? If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

“While prospective buyers or renters might be excited by a home they’ve found online, I cannot stress the importance of consulting a real estate agent enough,’’ Gendreau said. “Agents and brokers alike are here to protect their clients. It is our job to research listings, navigate the market, and review paperwork in order to ensure client safety and security.’’

Cameron Sperance can be reached at [email protected]. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.