FALL RIVER - Victor Tiu Lopez, 35, pleaded not guilty Monday in Bristol County Superior Court to charges stemming from an alleged housing scam targeting undocumented immigrants in New Bedford.
According to the Office of the Attorney General, Lopez faces 11 misdemeanor and four felony charges of larceny.
Prosecutors also charged him with two felony counts of witness intimidation.
Judge Raffi N. Yassayan set cash bail for Lopez at $25,000 as long as he had no contact with alleged victims, wore a GPS ankle bracelet, surrendered his passport, and checked in with a probation officer weekly.
Lopez's attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
According to the AG's Office, the supposed scam took place from February through April.
Lopez allegedly went on Spanish-language social media pages and advertised affordable apartments for rent under the false pretense of ownership.
The AG's Office alleged that when contacted, Lopez would show them the apartments and then pressure prospective renters - mostly undocumented indigenous people from Central America - into paying fees and deposits.
According to the Attorney General, Lopez would then disappear.
"It is shame how he took advantage of vulnerable renters who trusted him with down payments for apartments that didn't exist," Corinn Williams, director of the Community Economic Development Corporation, said via WhatsApp. "It's particularly sad in this housing market with the scarcity of affordable apartments and rising costs of rent. So many families are so desperate to find a decent place to live."
Housing crisis spurs scams
Several community activists said that such a scam became possible due to the New Bedford housing crisis, which is an especially large struggle for the undocumented.
"They don't have all these services like food stamps, fuel assistance," Jennifer Lopes of Immigrants' Assistance Center told The Standard-Times in June. This means they have less to spend on housing and often have more than the recommended number of residents living in their apartments.
They also jump at affordable opportunities for fear they'll be snatched up quickly. This, combined with their lack of familiarity with the life in the U.S. makes them vulnerable to schemes, especially when members of their own communities approach.
"This population ... [is] very vulnerable," said Liz Lozada, immigrant youth program manager for the Immigrants' Assistance Center. "That's why the [Maya community is concentrated] in the North End, because they tend to stay together.
"They trust each other because they know each other's experiences and they're able to connect with each other better than outside of their community."
There are approximately 10,000 undocumented residents in New Bedford, according to the IAC.
In May, United Interfaith Action released data that showed 47% of residents were cost-burdened when it came to housing - meaning they spent over 30% of their income on housing - compared to 29% statewide.
About 23% of city residents spend more than half on housing compared to 14% in Massachusetts, according to UIA.
FBI reports housing scam increase
The Boston Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a press release in July saying that the conditions of scarcity and high rent have led to an increase in scams targeting those looking for homes.
We have seen a significant increase in the amount of money being lost by people who are desperate for a good deal," said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division. "Scammers are cashing in on renters who need to act quickly for fear of missing out, and it's costing consumers thousands of dollars, and in some cases, leaving them stranded."
A bail hearing for Lopez is scheduled for November 3 at 9 a.m. at Bristol County Superior Court in Fall River.
Contact Kevin G. Andrade at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @KevinGAndrade. Support local journalism and subscribe to the Standard-Times today!
This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: Lopez pleads not guilty to larceny and witness intimidation charges