If someone offered to sell you beachfront property — cheap — you'd immediately be wary. Even in our great state, with more than 1,000 miles of coastline, a place on the beach commands a premium. Anyone offering it for a song is probably trying to pull a fast one.
Unfortunately, scam artists are becoming increasingly clever. They're taking advantage of the declining real estate market and looking to make a quick buck from nervous homeowners.
It has happened to plenty of savvy homeowners. They get behind on the bills, maybe because of illness or a death in the family. A smooth-talking representative appears with a plan to allow the family to tap into their equity. Before long, they've lost the home they spent years caring for.
So how can you protect your family's most prized possession?
First, understand that legitimate lenders want to help you. If it looks as if you'll be short a bit in a given month, don't wait. Call your lender right away.
Any real lender will have something it calls a "loss mitigation department." Its job is to make sure the company doesn't lose money by being forced to foreclose on homes. Really. No legit lender wants to take back your house.
"Lenders always lose money on foreclosures, even in a rising market," Rachel Dollar, the publisher of Mortgage Fraud Blog, told MSN. That's a great way to identify someone who's attempting to pull a fast one. Anyone who encourages you not to contact your lender is probably scamming you. Real lenders make their money when you make your payments every month. They're usually willing to work out a repayment schedule that suits your needs.
Also, be aware that fraud is a growing problem. According to the Associated Press, the FBI won 206 convictions in mortgage fraud scams last year, recouping nearly $22-million. All told, the FBI pursued 1,204 mortgage fraud cases in fiscal year 2007, leading to 321 indictments and court orders for $595.9-million in restitution.
Know the signs, and know where to get help. I had the honor of serving on the HOPE Task Force (www.flgov.com/hope_task_force) appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to discuss foreclosure prevention. During our meetings, we were pointed to a helpful Web page, www.freddiemac.com/avoidfraud. It describes how to recognize and avoid the two major types of fraud: fraud for profit and fraud for property.
Also, make sure anyone you're speaking to about your home is legitimate. If you've called a number you saw on a telephone pole, you're on the wrong track. A Realtor is a great resource, of course, but if you don't have one, speak to a professional housing counselor. They're trained to help borrowers spot and avoid fraud.
Finally, never sign anything until you've had a lawyer look it over. If anyone attempts to pressure you to make a decision quickly, be alert — that's a good sign that person may be running a scam. Remember: In real estate, if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Owning a home is still the best way to build wealth and live the American dream. Be cautious, and check with a licensed professional if you have any questions about property. Together we'll defeat fraud, and we'll get the real estate market growing strong again.
Nancy J. Riley is a Realtor in St. Petersburg and former president of the Florida Association of Realtors.