Homeowners Struggle, and the Vultures Circle

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, July 23, 2009

State and federal law enforcement officials are teaming up across the country to stop despondent homeowners from needlessly shelling out thousands of dollars to save their homes from foreclosure.

The Federal Trade Commission recently announced that it is leading "Operation Loan Lies," an effort by 25 federal and state agencies to shut down firms that are deceptively marketing foreclosure rescue and mortgage-modification services. These companies often do little or nothing to help homeowners renegotiate their mortgages or stop foreclosures, officials from the FTC and other agencies say.

The FTC said it has brought 14 cases since April, while 23 state attorneys general and other agencies have taken action against 178 companies.

Even in light of these actions, I'm afraid regulators have a tough mission in trying to prevent these schemes. There are just too many charlatan companies and too many hopeless homeowners.

Naturally, as vultures do when they spot an ailing creature, scam artists have been circling and feeding off people's desperation to keep their homes. Companies advertising on radio and television promise to "rescue" homeowners from foreclosure -- for a fee. And those fees are hefty, ranging from just under $1,000 to more than $5,000. The companies are taking advantage of the fact that hundreds of thousands of homeowners are still not seeing relief through federal and state programs created to speed up loan refinances and modifications.

The Obama administration's Making Home Affordable initiative, which involves various programs, promised to help millions of people save their homes from foreclosure. To reach more homeowners, the administration recently expanded one part of that effort to help borrowers whose mortgage debt is as much as 125 percent of their property's value. Previously, under the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP), only those borrowers whose first mortgage did not exceed 105 percent of the property's current market value were eligible. So now, for example, if your property is worth $200,000 but you owe $250,000 or less on your first-lien mortgage, you may qualify for HARP.

When the administration first announced its housing campaign in February, the Treasury Department estimated that the initiative would offer assistance to as many as 7 million to 9 million homeowners.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development said in a recent news release that "more than 200,000 borrowers have received offers for trial loan modifications" and "tens of thousands of refinances and trial modifications are under way."

So while the assistance is "under way," foreclosure filings are still coming fast. In the first half of this year, 1.9 million foreclosure default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions were reported on more than 1.5 million properties, according to RealtyTrac, which collects and aggregates foreclosure data from more than 2,200 counties, covering more than 90 percent of U.S. households.

RealtyTrac's latest report found that 1.2 percent of all U.S. housing units, or one in 84, had at least one foreclosure filing in the first six months of 2009. Foreclosure filings were reported on 336,173 U.S. properties in June, the fourth straight monthly total exceeding 300,000. Unemployment-related foreclosures account for much of the increases, the company reported.

Since the mortgage crisis began, the FTC, state attorneys general, housing authorities and nonprofit housing groups have pleaded with homeowners to avoid for-profit loan-modification companies. Many state legislatures have passed laws prohibiting such companies from collecting upfront fees in hopes of preventing foreclosure rescue scams.

The problem is that many homeowners, when faced with foreclosure, panic and think that paying a for-profit company will get them better and faster results. Unfortunately that typically doesn't happen.

People can seek help from a nonprofit housing counselor by calling 888-995-HOPE (4673) or visiting http://www.hopenow.com. Across the country, community-based organizations are holding foreclosure prevention workshops. A nationwide list of events can be found on the Freddie Mac Outreach site at http://www.freddiemac.com/avoidforeclosure/workshops.html.

The FTC has released a 3 1/2 -minute video, "Real People. Real Stories," that features homeowners who were scam targets. Watch it. Give the link for the video to someone you know is in trouble. The FTC has posted the video at http://www.ftc.gov/yourhome and http://www.youtube.com/FTCVideos.

If you find yourself on the brink of losing your home to foreclosure, stay away from companies that:

-- Ask you to pay a fee before the service is rendered.

-- "Guarantee" they can stop the foreclosure proceedings.

-- Tell you to stop paying the mortgage company or to make your mortgage payments to the "rescue" firm.

-- Recommend that you cut off contact with your lender or any housing counselor who may have been working with you.

Even if you can't get results right away by going though the resources I've listed, don't shell out money you can't afford to lose. The free help is still the better option.

-- By mail: Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

-- By e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com.

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