After 42 Maine residents were affected last year, the FBI is offering tips on how to avoid falling victim to rental scams.

The housing market in Maine is definitely challenging right now. Rents are expensive and units are hard to come by, especially affordable ones. So when you find an ad for an apartment that's exactly what you're looking for, it's easy to jump on it. But if you don't do your research, it could end up costing you a lot of money.

How Do The Scams Work?

The FBI says 42 Mainers fell victim last year in their efforts to find housing and lost a total of $489,309 to these rental and real estate scams. In Massachusetts, there were 290 victims who lost nearly $9 million. Officials say the losses are likely much higher because people are too embarrassed to report that they have been taken.

The scams run a couple of different ways:

  • In one scenario, the scammer sends a deposit check to a legitimate landlord but later backs out, asking for a refund. Or they send a check for more than the required amount and then ask for the landlord to refund the difference. In each scenario, the landlord refunds the money, only to find out later that the check was counterfeit.
  • In other instances, the scammer copies and slightly alters a legitimate real estate ad, claiming to be the owner. They tell the victim that they are out of town and unable to show the property, so they need a good faith deposit to hold it. Shortly after sending the deposit, the victim is told the property is no longer available.

What is the FBI's Advice?

So the FBI has a few tips to avoid falling victim to rental and real estate scams:

  • Never wire money to people you don't know.
  • Never put money towards a house or apartment that you haven't seen.
  • Before doing anything, confirm the identity of the landlord by researching public records to find out who owns the property that interests you.
  • Don't fill out applications online until you have met directly with the landlord/property manager.
  • Familiarize yourself with local rental prices.
  • Look for online reviews, references, and testimonials from past tenants.
  • Be wary if a potential tenant wants to rent your property without seeing it in person.
  • Be wary if a potential renter says they're out of town and will send you a cashier's check.
  • Be wary if a potential landlord says he/she is out of the country and wants the rent sent to a foreign account.
  • Never accept overpayment for properties. If you receive a check for more than the specified amount, return it. Do not deposit it.

Who Do I Tell If I Think I'm Being Targeted or Have Fallen Victim to a Scam?

Finally, the FBI advises anyone who thinks they are the target of a rental or real estate scam to stop all contact immediately. If money has already been sent, they say it's crucial that any transfer of funds be reported to the victim's bank or credit union and a complaint be filed with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center.

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