Down to your last dollar? Don’t let con artists take it from you.

Hard times are prime time for scammers.

Con artists and business owners who use shady practices know that desperate people will spend all their resources and even go into debt if they think it will help them out of a financial jam. So the scammers devise plans that promise jobs, access to government grants, debt relief, medical discounts or work-at-home opportunities. The worst of the schemes involve false promises to help homeowners modify their mortgages.

The Federal Trade Commission calls these practices “last-dollar frauds” because the con artists specifically prey on people who are financially distressed.

Since the financial meltdown started, the FTC has been concentrating on last-dollar cons and coordinating its crackdown efforts with other federal and state law-enforcement agencies around the country.

The FTC’s crackdown is a worthy effort against a mammoth problem.

“As long as the economy is sluggish and struggling, fraud artists are going to be concentrating on people vulnerable in the downturn,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection. “The single factor that is the best predictor that someone will be a victim of fraud is financial insecurity.”

Besides mortgage/debt-relief frauds, here’s what the FTC considers to be the top last-dollar scams:

-- Credit card interest-rate-reduction frauds.

-- Investment seminar/precious metal schemes.

-- Government grant fraud.

-- Work-at-home cons.

-- Credit card/line-of-credit frauds.

“We try to target the biggest guys and the most important fields of fraud,” Vladeck said.

Recently, the agency was able to get a U.S. District Court to shut down several related companies that failed to provide promised debt-relief services and also charged homeowners a $1,495 upfront fee for mortgage-relief assistance that was never delivered.

The FTC entered into settlements with Residential Relief Foundation, Silver Lining Services, Mitigation America and their principal owners. The settlements included judgments totaling more than $11 million, although consumers are unlikely to see much of their money back. The companies did not admit any wrongdoing in the settlements.

Regarding the marketing of credit card debt-relief services, the FTC alleged that the companies didn’t deliver on promises that they could help people become debt-free in 12 to 36 months, eliminate late fees and penalties, or reduce their debts by up to 50 percent.

Under the mortgage-relief scheme, the FTC said Residential Relief violated federal law by falsely claiming its loan-modification program could lead to the waiver of late mortgage payments, late fees and legal fees.

In another last-dollar fraud case, the FTC and four state attorneys general won a $1.7 million judgment against Meggie Chapman, operating as Meggie Chapman & Associates, for participating in a government grant scheme. Under the federal court order, Chapman is banned from marketing money-making opportunities to consumers.

The FTC said Chapman mass-mailed postcards claiming people could get $25,000 in free government grant money. People who called a number on the postcard were then pitched a $59 book on professional grant-writing. People who bought the book were contacted again in an effort to get them to spend more money on other products and services.

In March, the FTC announced Operation Empty Promises, a multi-agency initiative focusing on job scams, business-opportunity fraud and bogus work-at-home opportunities.

The FTC has been targeting operations that claimed they — for an upfront fee — would negotiate with a mortgage lender or servicer to obtain a loan modification, short sale or other foreclosure relief. Often, consumers got little or no help despite having paid the fees. As part of this effort, the FTC also finalized two rules prohibiting companies from charging advance fees for debt-relief and mortgage-assistance services.

Under the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule, companies pitching mortgage foreclosure rescue and loan-modification services are prohibited from collecting any fees until they have provided consumers with a written offer from their lender or servicer that the consumer decides is acceptable. Homeowners also have to have a written document from the lender or servicer describing the key changes to the mortgage that would result if the consumer accepted the offer.

In a similar rulemaking decision, the agency amended the Telemarketing Sales Rule to ban companies that sell debt-relief services over the telephone from charging fees before settling or reducing a customer’s credit card or other unsecured debt. The advance-fee ban is not retroactive, so it applies only to consumers who enrolled in a debt-relief service after Oct. 27 of last year.

“I think we are having an impact,” Vladeck said. “Are we draining the swamp of these guys? No, we are not.”

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Questions are welcomed, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible.

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