New scam threatens struggling homeownersby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
With thousands of Minnesotans facing foreclosure, state officials are urging homeowners to be wary of companies that show up offering to help. They say scam artists are promising to save the homes of desperate homeowners. Instead, they can leave their victims in even worse shape.
St. Paul, Minn. — If you're about to lose your home, promises like this one, contained in an Internet video ad, can be hard to resist.
"With the economy in a downfall and foreclosure rates at an all-time high, there truly aren't a whole lot of options. That's where we can help. Our mitigation team will fight with your lender on your behalf and make your payments affordable again."
Offers like these promise to get homeowners into mortgages with low interest rates.
"Only they don't help," says Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson.
Swanson recently filed lawsuits against a number of companies that she says targeted desperate homeowners.
"They take upfront fees of anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500, typically," she said, "and then fail to perform any services, whatsoever."
The investigation is ongoing and more cases are expected soon. Swanson suspects that thousands of Minnesotans may have been victimized.
Swanson says the scam artists search public foreclosure listings to find struggling homeowners. Then, they telemarket them and slip fliers under their doors, offering help with a loan modification.
A number of other states have taken action against loan modification fraud, as well. California officials recently busted a fraud ring suspected of stealing more than $700,000 from people facing foreclosure.
Rhonda Otteson is a foreclosure counselor who serves Kandiyohi, Meeker, McLeod and Renville counties. She says she recently found out about the scam when a client called her in a panic.
What happened is typical. The company demanded hundreds of dollars up front, but never delivered a loan modification. The client was also told not to contact her lender or speak to a foreclosure counselor, costing her precious time she could have used to work with her lender.
"She thought that this situation was going to be solved, and she had called them repeatedly to try and get an answer and she wasn't hearing anything back from them," Otteson said. "In the meantime, she's getting letters from USBank saying they were going to start moving towards foreclosure."
Nationally, millions of people are expected to face foreclosure this year, creating a ready-made market for modification fraud.
In Minnesota, it's illegal for so-called foreclosure consultants to demand money in advance for a loan modification.
But a loophole allows nonprofits to charge fees upfront. Officials say that loophole has allowed scammers to masquerade as nonprofits, and take money from unsuspecting homeowners.
Attorney Mark Ireland from the Foreclosure Relief Law Project says they often use high-pressure sales tactics even when nothing can be done to save the home.
"The biggest part of the scam doesn't relate so much to whether or not they are paid up front or whether they are licensed, but that they are charging a fee at all. That is what makes it fraud," he said.
Ireland says help is readily available from legitimate nonprofits and government agencies, for free. He urges anyone facing foreclosure to contact their lender as soon as possible.
Ireland says people in foreclosure are desperate for a magic bullet that will save their home. That's what makes them easy prey.
"There isn't any secret phone number. There is no secret department at the bank that approves loan modifications that only a few people know about," said Ireland. "So these false promises, that somebody has got a secret connection to the lender isn't really true. You just have to be persistent, and work through the existing channels and start early."
President Obama's stimulus package includes increased funding for law enforcement, some of which can be used to fight mortgage fraud.
Advocates say a bill currently working its way through the state Legislature would go a long way toward tightening the law to prevent thieves from preying upon desperate homeowners.
- Morning Edition, 03/18/2009, 7:25 a.m.