March 10th, 2009 8:43 PM by Lehel Szucs
Sunday, January 18, 2009
(01-18) 04:00 PST Washington -- You've probably seen the incessant TV and Internet pitches - "We can stop your foreclosure!" - offering hope to millions of homeowners who are either behind on their mortgage payments or heading to foreclosure.
Otherwise you may be charged with running a scam operation that violates federal law and exploiting the country's mortgage delinquency mess for your own private gain.
The FTC filed suit against Mortgage Foreclosure Solutions Inc. of Clearwater, Fla., charging the company with operating a "scheme to sell purported mortgage foreclosure services to consumers" nationwide through six Web sites, but never actually preventing foreclosures by lenders.
The FTC said the company lured homeowners with claims that "no matter how far you are behind in your payments, the size of your mortgage debt or your credit history, we have mortgage foreclosure solutions." According to the complaint, the marketing pitches said: "We are so confident of our abilities to provide mortgage foreclosure solutions that we guarantee our services."
Consumers who signed up were charged $1,200 - $250 for "processing setup" expenses, and $950 for negotiating with lenders and resolving foreclosure issues. Yet the company, according to the FTC, did "not stop mortgage foreclosures or save consumers' homes in all or virtually all instances." Many clients "ultimately (lost) their homes to foreclosure," said the FTC, despite the guarantees and fees. The ones who avoided foreclosure did so on their own, with no help from the firm.
In a final settlement of the case in U.S. District Court in Tampa on Jan. 5, the FTC obtained a $1.2 million judgment against the company, along with a series of prohibitions of future business activities promising foreclosure rescues. Because of the firm's financial incapacity to pay the judgment, the FTC agreed to suspend all but $8,320.84, while reserving the right to collect the rest if evidence emerges that the defendants had not fully disclosed their financial and other assets. Mortgage Foreclosure Solutions Inc. admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement agreement.
Cindy Liebes, assistant regional director for the FTC, said foreclosure rescue schemes are proliferating across the country as a result of the recession, job losses and the real estate bust. The firms prey on homeowners who "are scared and really don't know what to do" to get off the treadmill taking them to foreclosure and loss of their houses, said Liebes.
Scam operators often have no special ability to intervene on behalf of distressed borrowers, or to work out loan modifications, repayment plans or other alternatives with lenders. All they want is to sign up clients and take their money - essentially kicking homeowners when they're down and most vulnerable.
Liebes said the FTC has compiled a list of red-flag signs to help homeowners determine whether promoters claiming to be able to forestall or prevent foreclosures may not be legitimate. In general, according to the FTC, you should avoid doing business with any firm that:
-- Guarantees to stop your foreclosure, irrespective of how much you owe or how much income you have to resolve your unpaid bills. Most major lenders and the servicing companies they employ are willing to negotiate loan modifications to cut payments or reschedule debts, but if you don't have the income to handle lower payments, foreclosure is hard to avoid. Any company that spins you a different story is probably a scam.
-- Requires you to pay money up front before any services have been rendered. Liebes said some states specifically prohibit foreclosure rescue firms from collecting any money in advance, but Internet-based companies often ignore those rules.
-- Tells you to avoid contacting your lender or servicers directly, delegating all negotiating duties to the firm. In fact, borrowers tend to be in the best position to speak with servicers about their situations and possible alternatives to foreclosure, including short sales.
-- Instructs you to send mortgage payments to its office address instead of to your lender or servicer. Such firms not only take your money with few or no services rendered, but dig you into a deeper financial hole with your lender.
-- Asks you to turn over the title or deed to the property so that the company can be in a stronger position to deal with the lender. That's the equivalent of kissing your house - and any remaining equity - goodbye.
If you spot any of these red flags, take the FTC's advice: Walk away fast.
E-mail Ken Harney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page K - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle