Foreclosure fallout: Rescue scams
Scammers are taking advantage of mortgage holders at their most vulnerable - when they're about to lose their homes.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Jennifer Falke and her family had been in their Columbus, Ohio, home for nearly 12 years when they hit a rough patch in 2006. Falke was out of work and fell behind on the mortgage.
Falke said a flood of mailings and flyers then arrived at her door promising help from foreclosure rescue companies claiming to act as an intermediary between her and her lender to keep her from losing her home.
According to Falke, the company she contacted simply took her money and did nothing for her [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]. And by delaying a workout with her lender, it made getting back on track harder and more expensive.
"I called the company, thinking it was the best thing I could do," she said. "They told me they could help. But one of the first things they said was, 'Don't call your mortgage company. If you do they'll tack on fees.'"
For a $1,200 payment, according to Falke, the company claimed it would handle everything, including calls to the lender, but she charges it did nothing.
"Every time I got enough together to pay off the arrears, they would say the amount had increased." Falke received an income tax refund that she wanted to put toward a payment. But according to her, the company said her mortgage company said it wasn't enough.
"Then they stopped answering my calls. I would leave a message every day," Falke said. "One day, they told me, 'We're dropping your case' and hung up on me."
Only then did she call her lender. Falke found out the payoff was less than what the rescue company had told her - $2,600 instead of $3,500. And then she learned that the bank had dealt with many cases like hers.
"To prey on people at one of the most vulnerable points in their lives is despicable," said Ohio Attorney General Mark Dann, who filed suit earlier this month against six foreclosure rescue companies.
As foreclosure rates rise, evidence from other parts of the country indicates the number of rescue scams may be increasing. According to Alison Preszler, a spokeswoman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the BBB for Clearwater, Florida, received 508 complaints about local foreclosure rescue companies in the past three years with 322 coming just within the last 12 months.
Charlotte, North Carolina's BBB office reported last year that two foreclosure rescue companies were operating; today the count is 15 and six have already had legal actions taken against them. Twenty-one new companies began operations this year in Cleveland.
According to Dann, the most common form of foreclosure rescue scam in Ohio is like the one Falke claims was used on her. A scammer takes an up-front fee, usually $1,000 or more, to solve the victim's foreclosure problems, and then does little or nothing, pocketing the money.
Dann said victims are often low-income minorities, the elderly or immigrants in poor neighborhoods, but anyone can be targeted.
The most vulnerable members of society often make the easiest marks. A client of Jessica Attie of South Brooklyn Legal Services, was a mentally ill woman with a $60,000 mortgage balance that carried an interest rate of more than 10 percent. She was falling behind on payments, had few other resources and wanted to reduce her payments.
Attie said a scam artist convinced her client to sign over her title while he cleared up the arrears. She could rent the home for six months, and then he would sell it back to her. Instead, according to Attie, the scammer resold the house and absconded with more than $400,000.
Michael Sichenzia knows mortgage rescue scams from the inside out; in 2002, he was convicted and served hard time for mortgage fraud at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York State. Today he's an investigator for the Deerfield Beach, Florida law firm, Glinn Somera & Silva and chief operating officer of Dynamic Consulting Services, specializing in financial fraud.
According to Sichenzia, the most common foreclosure rescue scam has always been "equity stripping."
"The scammer promises to save the home by taking title," he said, "renting it to the owner and selling it back sometime later. Instead, he strips the equity by charging excessive fees, doing phony renovations and not making the mortgage payments."
Sometimes the home owner is fully aware that the title is changing hands, counting on the promise to be able to redeem it later. But other times the scammer tricks the owner.
"The signing over of title is buried in an avalanche of paperwork or in the language of the contracts," said Sichenzia.
Duane Legate, who runs Housebuyernetwork.com, which arranges short sales for homeowners in trouble and also offers foreclosure prevention advice, said, "There's only a handful of legitimate companies out there, ones that really do try to help clients. The rest are just looking for a quick payoff."
According to Legate, the scammers are multiplying so rapidly that there's even a company that sells foreclosure rescue Web sites, complete with testimonials from smiling, satisfied clients.
Here are some of the tactics that scammers are known to use:
According to Dann, you should never trust anyone who has contacted you, unsolicited, offering to help. "There are no boundaries to entry for any entrepreneurial criminal to get into these scams."
The best thing to do is to call your lender and try to work out a plan. If in doubt, get in touch with your state attorney general's office. It can put you in touch with a Housing and Urban Development-approved free credit counseling service that will do you a lot more good than fee-based rescue services.
Jennifer Falke was able to work out a settlement with her bank. She's back to work and current with her mortgage payments, but she is out the $1,200 she paid to the foreclosure rescue company.
"The ingenuity of people who would rather cheat than work hard is unending," said Dann.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, we incorrectly identified the company that had been hired by Jennifer Falke. The company we incorrectly identified was Foreclosure Assistance Solutions (FAS). We apologize for the error.