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Thieves in rescuers' clothing

Published Aug. 25, 2005

Consumer advocates across the country are begging states for new laws to help fight a rising tide of complaints about foreclosure "rescue" scams, but there is a lot that homeowners can do to protect themselves.

The National Consumer Law Center in Boston, which recently issued a comprehensive report on "the rampant theft of Americans' homes and equity" by con artists who promise to save houses from foreclosure, offers a lot of advice on how to avoid getting snared.

Prevention is the best medicine, they say. That is because if a homeowner falls into a scammer's clutches, it will take considerable money and time, a good lawyer and sometimes help from state regulators or prosecutors to undo the damage.

While fraud and forgery may be involved, and other unfair trade or deceptive practices laws may have been violated, state enforcement agencies often do not have the resources to help "or don't think they have the authority," said Elizabeth Renuart, a co-author of the report. And, in most states, she said, "they don't have the ability to save the house even if you prosecute. That's a civil issue."

The first advice is to ignore the posters offering foreclosure help that have been slapped up on telephone poles, in median strips and at bus stops in many working-class neighborhoods, the report says.

Ignore fliers dropped off on front porches or stuffed in mailboxes. Particularly ignore hand-written notes suggesting the "help" is coming from someone you know or who has your interests in mind.

"These kinds of signs crowd the streets in Virginia, Maryland, Florida" and other states where rescue scams are exploding, co-author Steve Tripoli said at a recent news conference in Washington. "If the street signs don't get you, the fliers will."

Hand-written fliers, he said, "are more dangerous, because they are more likely to instill a sense of familiarity or trust."

Also ignore suggestions that "time is not on your side," he said. "The con artist is going to go out of their way to rush you" into making a decision, and again gains trust by saying, "we've been in the same dilemma."

Renuart said the promises are typically empty: "These are felonies. This is grand theft of your house."

The center's report says foreclosure scams are "rampant," particularly in hot housing markets where houses can be worth much more than desperate homeowners realize and where scam artists essentially can "buy" a property by paying off the amount that is overdue on a loan.

While the rescue "specialist" may promise to rent the house to the homeowner, with the opportunity for the family to buy it back later, the rescuer typically sets the price higher than the financially strapped homeowners can afford. Then he moves to evict them when they fall short on monthly "rent" payments. Many times the underlying mortgage is not paid off, so homeowners not only are evicted but also still owe for the original loan amount.

"They get the houses for pennies on the dollar," Tripoli said.

Tripoli said homeowners in financial trouble should "do the exact opposite of what these scam artists say to do."

"They tell you, "Do not talk to an attorney or to a lender.' But if you're caught in a foreclosure, you need to talk to your lender to ask, "What can we do about restructuring payments or refinancing?' " Tripoli said.

Homeowners then need "to clearly understand what the rules are on foreclosure in your state. And you need to know the timetable for where you are in the process."

For example, a homeowner should check to see if a letter from a lender is a deficiency notice, which says the homeowner is behind in payments to the lender and can still "cure" the deficiency by paying it off, Tripoli said. That is opposed to a letter that announces a sale date, which means the homeowner is also subject to a variety of fees beyond the amount in arrears.

In hot markets, there can be time before the sale not only to work out a new repayment schedule with the lender, what is called a loss-mitigation plan, but even to sell on the open market and make a profit after paying off the delinquency and interest due and the lender's fees for advertising and lawyers, said Marla Webb, a senior adviser to foreclosure.com, an online foreclosure listing service.

Consumer groups note that selling the house may be the only option for some, because minorities and the elderly often have been targeted for predatory loans with high fees and terms and for multiple refinances that drained their equity. Although they may not want to move, selling on the open market will save them from their supposed rescuers, say consumer advocates.

Homeowners who have gotten taken by rescue scams can try to find a consumer lawyer to represent them in actions before enforcement agencies, in hearings on subsequent evictions by the rescuer or an investor, or in lawsuits alleging fraud or deception.

But knowledgeable lawyers are few, and homeowners in distress often cannot afford them, consumer groups say. And the cases are so complicated that it takes more time than many lawyers want to spend, consumer groups say.

Tripoli recommends retaining a lawyer through the National Association of Consumer Advocates (www.naca.net), which lists consumer lawyers by state. Those who cannot afford a lawyer can try contacting the local Legal Services Corp. office, he said.

But Ira Rheingold, executive director of NACA, said, "The fact is that there are not a ton of attorneys who do these cases."

Other possibilities for help include local consumer protection offices.

If a homeowner thinks "that there's criminal activity involved, you can go to your local prosecutor," Tripoli said. "That can put a chill on the activity and maybe buy you some time."

But the report notes that state enforcement agencies may not be able to help save the home. And "while most state criminal prosecutors possess a few tools to fight these scams today, they may lack the resources to tackle the scammers and hold them responsible," the report said.

A Maryland law makes scam activity a misdemeanor, subject to three years in jail. To encourage lawyers to take on cases and to discourage scams, it gives those alleging violations the right to file suit privately and to sue for triple damages and legal fees.

It requires that all promises of help be put into written contracts, that any transaction involving transfer of a title be done through a standard settlement form, and that the original homeowner, who has signed a contract to rent and try to buy back later, gets 82 percent of the net proceeds in any subsequent resale of a property within 18 months. The law also helps those facing foreclosure by giving them more time to figure out what has happened to them.

The National Consumer Law Center report argues that even the Maryland law is not tough enough, and recommends that states ban the activity or regulate it more tightly. When a foreclosure rescuer or a partner "buys" a house and the consumer has an option to buy back or lease back, the law should require an accurate assessment of the homeowner's ability to repay, the report says. "Otherwise, these deals are doomed to fail from the outset and the loss of the home is a foregone conclusion."