With every new crisis, it seems, comes a new scheme aimed at defrauding unsuspecting consumers. Earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, we learned how scammers were targeting seniors by offering “free,” unsolicited COVID-19 tests to Medicare recipients. There were no tests, of course — it was a ruse to gain access to personal medical and financial information.

Now, the scammers are coming after the younger generations. Strict social distancing requirements and other efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus have forced apartment seekers online. Days of in-person inspections have given way to virtual tours on sites such as Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. With a little luck, an apartment seeker can find a place to live without getting up from the couch at their current digs.

Or, as an increasing number of shoppers are learning, you can shell out thousands of dollars in deposits, show up at the front door of your new place on move-in day and find someone else already living there. And they’re there legally because the unit was never actually on the market.

Scammers are copying and pasting real estate ads and photos from listings and giving them a different address, often pricing them below market value to lure apartment shoppers into making a deposit without seeing the property in person. Last month, reporter Julie Manganis found several questionable listings for apartments across the region.

One fraudulent listing nearly cost a Salem State University student thousands of dollars in lost deposits.

It is difficult to track and prosecute apartment scammers, who can hide in the anonymity of the internet. As Manganis reported, Craigslist posts warnings about scams and removes fraudulent listings when it finds them. But as soon as one is taken down, another pops up. The ad that nearly duped the Salem State student was taken down, only to pop up later in another section of the site.

The best advice for apartment seekers? Use common sense. If it’s too good to be true in this overheated housing market, it probably is, Beverly police spokesman Michael Boccuzzi said.

Don’t send in a large deposit without fully vetting the property.

“That old saying, ‘Buyer beware,’ comes to mind,” Boccuzzi said. “Do your homework.”

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