Con Artists Play Troubling Game: Grand Theft Home

Wanda Walker, who lost her Fort Washington house last year,  at a news conference Thursday.
Wanda Walker, who lost her Fort Washington house last year, at a news conference Thursday. "I'm angry and very disgusted," she said. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 4, 2005

Consumer advocates around 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, which this week 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 does fall into a scamster'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, says the report.

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 news conference Thursday. "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 such as Washington's where houses can be worth much more than desperate homeowners realize and where scam artists can essentially "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 ever 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.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company