The real estate boom has contributed to a rise in foreclosure rescue scams, a national consumer advocacy group said yesterday.
Although there are no nationwide statistics on such scams, a survey of consumer groups and lawyers indicates that "many, many thousands" of people have been victimized, according to the authors of a report released by the National Consumer Law Center.
The run-up in housing prices has created a group of cash-strapped but house-rich owners who are particularly vulnerable when hit by emergencies, such as the loss of a job or medical problems, according to the authors. Some of those struggling with housing payments, especially minorities and the elderly, have sub-prime, high-cost mortgage loans, which compounds the problem, they said.
"Put those all together, and you've got a ripe opening for this type of scam," said Steve Tripoli, who wrote the report with the organization's attorney, Elizabeth Renuart.
The schemes can take several forms. Rescue consultants sometimes promise help for a big fee and not deliver. Others persuade homeowners that they can sign over the title, become renters and buy the house back later. Instead, homeowners can never afford to repurchase.
There has also been an increase in scamming because "get-rich-quick" seminars teach people how to find desperate homeowners facing foreclosures and persuade them to turn over their property, according to the authors. "This kind of scam is being taught around the country," Tripoli said.
In California alone, one firm had 1,800 clients who paid basic fees of $750 to $1,250 for advice and never got help or refunds, according to the report. The firm on May 18 settled with California prosecutors for $500,000 and agreed to a permanent injunction.
"There have been major outbursts of these scams in the D.C./Maryland/Virginia region, Florida, New York, Ohio and many other states," the report said. "It's important to note that most . . . go either completely unexposed or unpunished" because homeowners don't even realize what happened or can't afford to hire attorneys or because state regulators lack investigative staff or the authority to act.
It warned that problems could worsen significantly if mortgage interest rates soon jump and foreclosures follow. The authors urged states to ban or restrict such activities.
Federal banking regulators have issued a warning that directs lenders to be more selective about who can get home equity loans and lines of credit because of concerns about the growth of risky interest-only loans and adjustable-rate mortgages. The fear is that rising interest rates could make it harder for people to repay their loans, raising the possibility of increased foreclosures.
Julie L. Williams, acting U.S. comptroller of the currency, whose agency regulates the nation's banks, recently said there has been a clear spike in foreclosures in a number of major urban areas.
The report said many homeowners don't realize that the rising value of their homes means they might be able to work out a new payment plan or refinancing schedule based on the appreciated value of the house. They also don't realize that they can often sell before the foreclosure and make a profit.
Families are often evicted while they are trying to argue that they still own the home. Landlord-tenant courts generally don't hear these kinds of cases. To delay an eviction hearing so a case alleging fraud or deception can be heard in another court can require posting an expensive bond, according to the authors.
Wanda Walker, a Fort Washington homeowner who spoke at the news conference, said she had to give up on fighting in landlord-tenant court to get back her house because she couldn't afford to post a "$250,000 bond on a house that I paid $168,000 for" in 2001. She is still pursuing a civil suit.
"I'm angry and very disgusted" about losing the home, Walker said. Instead of getting help from consultant Robert C. Brown of RCB Group LLC, Walker alleged that the consultant copied her signature onto a deed transferring ownership of the five-bedroom duplex in return for the $10,900 owed on the mortgage. She says she never got the $157,290 listed as paid on the deed and that her mortgage has never been paid off.
Ronald M. Miller, Brown's lawyer, said this week that he was "hesitant to answer questions because the matter is still in litigation." But he said Walker signed an agreement and that she "is the wrong alleged victim to be arguing this after having a jury trial and losing, and filing an appeal and having dropped her appeal."
Report author Steve Tripoli of the National Consumer Law Center says thousands of homeowners have fallen prey.