Beware of loan modification scammers

There are some good things going on in the economy these days.

Just like temperatures across the country, the stock market has been hot lately. The economy added 288,000 jobs in June. The unemployment rate dropped to 6.1 percent.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Yet there are still plenty of Americans who need financial help, especially with their mortgages. We can’t lose sight of these people, because they are vulnerable to predators peddling loan modification fixes.

Barbara Floyd Jones, senior manager of national homeownership programs at NeighborWorks America, said loan modification scams are on the rise. And they often work because people don’t know much about the loan modification process.

Floyd Jones took to the streets of the District to see what people know about mortgage modifications. She asked people how much they would be willing to pay to have their mortgage changed to give them a financial break.

One person said he would be willing to pay $10,000 to $20,000.

“I don’t even know if I would have the money to actually do a loan modification,” another man said in a video you can view on the organization’s Web site.

One woman said she would be willing to pay “whatever it would take to keep my home, especially if I’m in foreclosure.”

What they didn’t know: It is illegal for a company to collect upfront fees for mortgage relief services.

Under the Federal Trade Commission’s Mortgage Assistance Relief Services rule, companies pitching foreclosure rescue and loan modification services are prohibited from collecting any fees until they have provided a written offer from a lender or servicer that the consumer decides is acceptable. Homeowners also must be given a written document from the lender or servicer describing the key changes to the mortgage that would result if they accepted the offer.

“Despite all that we are doing, people still think they need to pay to get a loan modification,” Floyd Jones said in an interview.

People are willing to pay because of persuasive advertising on radio and television for foreclosure rescue and mortgage modification services. The companies are taking advantage of the fact that many homeowners are not getting relief through federal and state programs created to speed loan refinances and modifications.

Scammers tend to look for people in one of the following situations:

●A borrower who is behind on his mortgage and wants to see if he qualifies for a loan modification.

●A homeowner who is making her mortgage payments on time but is worried that she can’t keep up.

●A borrower who is not having trouble paying the mortgage but whose home is underwater — meaning the borrower owes more than the home is worth. Such people don’t have to move. They don’t have to refinance, but they want to take advantage of lower mortgage rates and are frustrated that they can’t. They feel entitled to a loan modification.

NeighborWorks America recently issued a warning urging homeowners to avoid paying for a loan modification or to stop a foreclosure. More than $93.6 million has gone to loan modification scammers, according to data collected by the Loan Modification Scam Prevention Network, which includes NeighborWorks America and a coalition of government agencies, nonprofit groups and service providers. The average loss was $3,287.

Last month, the Obama administration announced that it would extend its Making Home Affordable program through 2016. The announcement will likely resurrect some loan modification scams, according to Douglas Robinson, a spokesman for NeighborWorks America.

“We always see a ramp-up of activity following a government program announcement,” Robinson said.

Here are some signs you are about to be scammed, according to NeighborWorks America:

●You are asked to pay a fee in advance to modify, refinance or work out issues with your mortgage.

●You are given a guarantee that the company or person can stop a foreclosure or get your loan modified.

●You are told to stop making your mortgage payments. Or you are told to stop your payments and instead send the money to the company.

Don’t believe people who say you can’t get a loan modification unless you are behind on your mortgage or that you have to stop making payments.

“It’s not true that you have to be late to get assistance,” Floyd Jones said.

Please stop listening to the mortgage rescue ads. Free help is available from your lender or a HUD-approved housing counseling agency. To find one, call 888-995-HOPE (4673).

You can also find out more about mortgage relief scams by going to LoanScamAlert.org. Or go to ftc.gov and search for information about “Mortgage Relief Scams.”

Don’t get scammed. There’s help out there that doesn’t cost you a penny.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or michelle.singletarym@ washpost.com. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com .

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