Not only is America's foreclosure crisis still going strong, it now comes with even more fraud and deception.
First-time foreclosure starts—default notices or scheduled foreclosure auctions—were up 7 percent from February to March, the third straight monthly increase according to foreclosure website RealtyTrac.
While those numbers are troubling for most, for scammers, it means a fresh supply of potential prey. With heightened media coverage surrounding the recent national mortgage settlement and refinements to government assistance programs, experts say selling "the schtick" has only become easier for criminals.
The scams can be as simple as someone posing as a homeowner's bank, offering to renegotiate or refinance a mortgage, or as complex as an entire website set up to trick borrowers into forking over cash to a seemingly legitimate organization that promises to work with a lender or servicer to save a borrower's home.
"It's absolutely fertile ground for these scam organizations," says Josh Fuhrman, senior vice president of community affairs for the Homeownership Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping distressed homeowners.
"These are not your average everyday street thugs—the scam organizations are very sophisticated and as they see new programs pop up, they're mimicking these programs."
"It doesn't take [scam organizations] long to figure out where that opportunity is, because those programs get a lot of press and media and they quickly pop up pages on the Internet and solicit borrowers," he adds.
Consequently, reported mortgage foreclosure scams surged nearly 60 percent over the past year, according to the HPF's estimates, with about half of complaints involving scammers claiming to be attorneys or offering specialized "legal services."
"People who are in desperate situations, they kind of grasp at straws," Fuhrman says. "When they see these kinds of organizations, they will contact them in hopes that they might be able to find a better answer and unfortunately, they're just going to get scammed."
Fuhrman estimates his organization receives about 3,000 calls a month from homeowners who believe they've been a victim of a scam. Callers lose about $2,500 on average, he says.
"[Scammers] really prey on these vulnerable people and oftentimes they're taking that very last amount of money and hope away from them," he adds.
But there are red flags consumers can watch out for when trying to determine whether or not an organization is legit. First, homeowners should never have to pay anything up front for a loan modification or information on how to negotiate with their lender, says Roy Oppenheim, whose Florida-based law firm Oppenheim Law has handled more than 1,000 mortgage and foreclosure fraud cases over the past 5 years.
"If you're paying upfront to a non-lawyer who's claiming they can modify your loan, that's a big scam," Oppenheim says.
Furhman agrees: "You should never have to pay anything upfront," he says. "There are housing counselors that provide the very same information and support and impact for free."
Fuhrman also cautions borrowers to stay away from any program that guarantees an outcome.
"That's usually a tip that it's a scam organization, because nobody can guarantee an outcome except the investor or servicer," he says. "If they're really aggressive and trying to force a decision on the spot, that's also usually a tip that it's a scam organization."
While it's unlikely those who are duped will get their money back, they can still reach out to the HPF for help. Their call could actually help others, Fuhrman says, since HPF submits all of its fraud reports to a national database accessible by federal enforcement agencies.
"They have access to that information and then try to shut down these scam organizations," Fuhrman says.
Still, while a flourishing number of small-time scam operations have cost American homeowners a pretty penny, it pales in comparison to the damage unleashed by banks who threw the rule of law out the window with robo-signing, some critics say.
"Robo-signing was a scam 1000 times bigger in proportion to all these little scams that you're talking about," Oppenheim says. "The real perpetrators were the banks where they deliberately cut corners and the corners they were cutting were the constitutional rights of homeowners."
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