Special section - Fighting foreclosure
mortgage
Foreclosure scams

You've probably heard the ads on the radio or seen the signs or fliers: Having trouble with your mortgage? We can help! You may be eligible for mortgage aid!

Chances are, you mentally filed these come-ons under good old-fashioned American entrepreneurship in action. Maybe you even think kindly toward companies that would offer a hand to debt-ridden homeowners on the brink of foreclosure.

Fat chance. The majority of these so-called foreclosure "rescuers" are actually sleazy predators, says Harvard Law School professor and bankruptcy expert Elizabeth Warren. She calls what they offer "the cement life jacket."

Before you're even aware of it, these scam artists will have acquired your home for a fraction of what it would have brought at sale. Or, in an even worse scenario, they will have transferred your title into a trust that then enables them to rent or "resell" your property to equally hoodwinked buyers while, to your surprise, you remain legally obligated to make the mortgage payments!

The perfect storm

It's no accident that the spike in foreclosures has been accompanied by a spike in mortgage scams. Mortgage fraud is at an all-time high -- up 26 percent in 2008, according to a recent report by the Mortgage Asset Research Institute, or MARI. Unsurprisingly, the report cites a rise in foreclosure-prevention schemes as a contributing factor.

Steve Tripoli saw the storm on the horizon as well. As a former consumer fraud investigator for the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, Steve Tripoli interviewed numerous state attorneys general and legal aid staffers for the NCLC's June 2005 report, "Dreams Foreclosed: The Rampant Theft of Americans' Homes through Equity-Stripping Foreclosure 'Rescue' Scams."

Tripoli found that foreclosure rescue scams fall into three main categories.

3 types of scams:
  • Phantom help: The rescuer charges outrageous fees for light-duty phone calls or paperwork that the homeowner could easily do, none of which results in saving the home. This predatory scam gives homeowners a false sense of hope and prevents them from seeking qualified help.
  • The bailout: In this scam, the homeowner is deceived into signing over the title with the belief that he will be able to remain in the house as a renter and eventually buy it back over time. The terms of these scams are so onerous that the buy-back becomes impossible, the homeowner loses possession and the rescuer walks off with most or all of the equity.
  • The bait-and-switch: In this scam, the homeowners think they are signing documents to bring the mortgage current, but instead actually surrender their ownership. They usually don't even know they've been scammed until they're evicted.

"Rescuers" often place ownership of the property into a trust in the owner's name in order to avoid the "due-on-sale" clause in most mortgage contracts. They then transfer ownership through the trust to themselves or to a front operation. In these instances, the mortgage company is unaware that anything is amiss. The homeowner, however, is frequently left on the hook to pay the mortgage on a house she no longer owns.

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