PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Attorney General Peter Neronha issued a stern warning to landlords in Rhode Island Thursday, urging them to stop conducting so-called “self-help evictions.”

Neronha said over the past few weeks, his office has seen a spike in self-help eviction reports. A self-help eviction, he said, is when a landlord attempts to forcibly remove their tenants without following the required court process.

“The pandemic has resulted in tremendous financial hardship for landlords and tenants alike,” Neronha said. “While we recognize that, as I said back in April when we started seeing an increase in this practice, landlords cannot simply ignore the law and take matters into their own hands.”

Neronha said under law, landlords can’t enter a tenant’s home and remove their belongings without a court order. Landlords also can’t change the locks, cut off their heat and electricity or take any other actions to force the tenant out.

“Most landlords are excellent partners in the fight for housing security, however, we have seen a recent increase in people being bullied into leaving their homes or served with illegal eviction notices,” Crossroads’ President and CEO Karen Santilli said.

Neronha said he believes the uptick may be caused by a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order that makes it illegal for landlords to evict tenants until Dec. 31, in most cases.

Both residential and commercial landlords who attempt an illegal eviction may face civil or criminal penalties, Neronha said.

“If your landlord is trying to force you out of your home you should call the police,” Santilli said. “These are incredibly difficult times for everyone, but know that you have rights and you have people throughout the state who are on your side and ready to help.”

Neronha said tenants who believe their landlord is attempting to force them out are advised to keep making normal rental payments to the extent possible and seek legal guidance.