NEW BEDFORD — A city man who allegedly cheated local immigrants out of thousands of dollars through an apartment scam pleaded not guilty to all charges in Bristol County Superior Court on Monday.
Victor Tiu Lopez, 35, of New Bedford, collected $22,050 in rental deposits for apartments he didn’t own, according to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. He defrauded more than a dozen people, targeting immigrants and Spanish speakers, authorities said.
Prosecutors said Lopez would advertise an apartment on social media or a local chat group, posing as a landlord. Then he would collect a deposit from a prospective tenant. But after that, he would repeatedly push back the move-in date or tell the victims that he decided to rent the apartment to someone else. Sometimes he would ask for even more money before he disappeared.
Lopez also threatened to kill a community organizer who was trying to help the victims, prosecutors said.
A grand jury indicted Lopez on 15 counts of larceny and two counts of witness intimidation last month. Bail was set at $25,000 when he pleaded not guilty Monday.
Lopez’s court-appointed lawyer did not immediately respond to The Light’s request for comment.
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“I’m glad to see the Attorney General’s Office stepping up and really doing a lot of investigation on this particular scam,” said Helena DaSilva Hughes, director of New Bedford’s Immigrants Assistance Center.
DaSilva Hughes said she “constantly” sees scams targeting immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented. In the past, they were mostly related to immigration. But over the last few years, the city’s tight rental market has given rise to more housing schemes, she said.
“Especially when it comes to housing, there is such a need,” she said. “It’s just a perfect opportunity for people to get scammed.”
Immigrants are especially vulnerable because they are often underhoused — many of them couch-surf or double up with other families in the same apartment, DaSilva Hughes said. She warned that people have to be careful while looking for a rental.
“It makes me sad, and at the same time it’s just an opportunity to make sure that people are aware that there are these people out there who are scamming this population,” she said. “It’s such a vulnerable population, and they’re just looking for a place to live.”
The FBI’s Boston office said in July that rental scams are on the rise. People in Massachusetts lost $8.9 million to these scams in 2021. That year, New England saw a 27% increase in rental scam losses from the previous year.
Experts say it’s a bad idea to send money to a potential landlord before you’ve met them or seen the apartment. And if the listing has a price that’s much lower than similar apartments, that’s another sign it could be a scam.
Email Grace Ferguson at email@example.com.