Carolyn Murray was in trouble. The Bowie resident and information technology worker had lost her job as a result of the recession and was beginning to fall behind on her mortgage payments.
Around mid-2011, Murray, now 64, attended a seminar claiming to be sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. There she was given the name of an out-of-state law firm that might be able to help her.
“I hadn’t understood that a lawyer would be involved,” she says, “but they said, ‘This person will help you get a modification.’ ”
It seemed legitimate: Working through a lawyer sounded official, and Murray’s online research turned up a number of strong ratings for the firm. So she saved and borrowed the $4,000 required for the fee and turned it over to the company, which promised to act as a liaison between her and the bank.
Six months passed, but the company had done nothing for Murray — and had begun asking for more money. “They said they now needed to go into mediation with the bank,” she recalled. “They said, ‘We can’t do that unless you pay us another $7,000.’ Of course, I didn’t have that, so I couldn’t pay.”
Murray, it turned out, had been scammed.
She’s in good company: In the same way that the housing bubble produced several predatory lenders offering mortgages that were too good to be true, its successor, the foreclosure crisis, has led to a wave of rescue scams. Preying on desperate homeowners who are late on their mortgages, fraudsters tout their expertise and special connections with banks in guaranteeing that they will be able to help clients — for a price, of course.
Despite investigations by federal agencies and nonprofit organizations, the scams are common nationwide, particularly in areas hit hard by the housing crisis.
“There’s more illegitimate than legitimate help out there,” says Yolanda McGill, who works for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and coordinates the national Loan Modification Scam Prevention Network. But gauging the motives of someone offering aid isn’t impossible, and consumer advocates say educating the public is their best weapon in a fight in which the bad guys have an overwhelming financial advantage.
Although foreclosures aren’t front-and-center news anymore, the region is still dealing with a high number of homeowners in hot water. In June, according to the Urban Institute, 7 percent of Washington-area homeowners with first mortgages were more than 90 days late on a payment or were in foreclosure proceedings — a number that has held fairly steady during the past two years.
Peter Spohn, a supervisory special agent for the FBI’s Washington field office, says several types of scams target troubled homeowners. A lawyer might claim that the initial mortgage process was conducted illegally and offer to sue on behalf of the homeowner, who pays legal fees but never sees any action. Or a real estate agent may offer to help sell the house of someone whose property is worth less than they paid for it but eventually pockets most of the payment.
But, Spohn says, “the highest number of cases we’ve had were foreclosure rescue scams,” in which an individual or company offers to help a homeowner get a loan modification. Although the setup may vary, the scammer will usually tell the homeowner to stop making payments to the bank, saying that for a fee of $2,000 to $5,000, he or she will work with the lender directly. Several months later, after hearing nothing about the loan, the homeowner realizes that the offer was a fraud and that he or she is now seriously behind on the mortgage.
Spohn says the Washington area is in the top 12 states or regions for foreclosure-rescue fraud (California and Florida are the worst), particularly communities where housing values have fallen most precipitously in the past few years, such as Prince George’s, Fairfax and Prince William counties. Racial minorities are overwhelmingly targeted — African Americans, who were disproportionately affected by the housing crisis and are, therefore, more vulnerable to offers of help, and Latinos and Asians, because they often live in insular communities, where word-of-mouth recommendations go a long way.
The ads are ubiquitous, arriving in the mail, posted on the Internet and on billboards (“We Buy Houses!”), and even running on language-specific radio and television stations such as Radio America and Telemundo, though representatives for both stations say they closely vet advertisers.
“Most of our clients have been scammed in one form or another,” says Manuel Ochoa, regional director of homeownership for the Latino Economic Development Corp., which has offices in the District and Wheaton.
Of course, the more desperate the borrower, the better the swindler’s chances of gaining a foothold. In some cases, homeowners may have already met with a legitimate housing counselor, only to be told that their mortgage is too expensive for them to stay in the house. “That’s not what homeowners want to hear,” says Angie Rodgers, director of the Capital Area Foreclosure Network, “so they’ll keep shopping around until they hear what they want to hear.”
And the con artists will say just about anything to reel in a customer. The National Fair Housing Alliance has spent three years impersonating troubled homeowners in order to investigate foreclosure-rescue fraud. Staff members have found that no matter how implausible the figures they present as income and expenditures, the scammers invariably promise success in obtaining a modification. Under the guise of whatever housing policy is being promoted by the government at the time, they often pledge that they can get the borrower an interest rate of 3 percent or less.
What makes the situation more difficult is the surprisingly large number of lawyers involved in many scams, experts say. In early 2011, the Federal Trade Commission banned the collection of upfront fees for mortgage relief but excepted law firms from the rule. As a result, housing advocates quickly saw a rise in advertisements for foreclosure assistance backed by law firms.
Many consumers assume that paying a fee means that they will receive better service, says McGill, coordinator of the Loan Modification Scam Prevention Network, and “attorneys add legitimacy and make a homeowner less skeptical. It’s a big, big problem.”
Part of that problem is that not every lawyer offering to help negotiate a mortgage is fraudulent. There’s a vast amount of gray area: Some law firms that charge money for mortgage reduction assistance actually do make repeated efforts to contact banks; others conduct legitimate business while offering shady services on the side.
As a result, enforcement efforts generally move slowly. Locating and building a case against a particular scammer is time-consuming and labor-intensive, particularly given that many of the firms are far from the states where they advertise. In 2011, the FBI’s Washington field office had just one conviction on a loan modification or mortgage elimination scheme; in 2012, it had three.
Other groups, including federal agencies such as the FTC and HUD and nonprofit groups such as the National Fair Housing Alliance and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, track and sometimes pursue cases. But because many homeowners are embarrassed about having been duped and worried about potential retaliation, they are not always eager to come forward.
Which is why housing advocates agree that public education is the most important effort in this battle. The main message they broadcast? “Don’t ever pay for these services,” says Rodgers, leader of the Capital Area Foreclosure Network. She adds that the many free housing counselors who have been trained and certified by HUD have as much knowledge of the mortgage and banking system as anyone in the field.
Still, until the housing market substantially changes, distressed homeowners will probably continue to fall for offers of assistance that provide a shred of hope. And not all will be as lucky as Carolyn Murray. After losing $4,000, Murray — with the help of a housing counselor from Maryland’s nonprofit Housing Initiative Partnership — contacted her bank directly.
After many months of discussions, it turned out that Murray, who in the meantime had found a job, was eligible for a huge principal reduction of her mortgage through the National Mortgage Settlement, which was negotiated in February between the government and five major lenders.
Murray sees herself as having won the jackpot in mortgage modifications. But she’s still angry at the swindlers who took advantage of her desperation and conned her out of thousands of dollars. “It’s a scam, and they know it’s a scam, and they should pay,” she says.
Abrams is a freelance writer.