ASK KIM


Mortgage Crisis Fuels Scams

Kimberly Lankford

Although legitimate help is available, some mortgage-restructuring scams could cost you your house and more. We show you how to spot the real deal.



I have been laid off for seven months and am having trouble making my mortgage payments. I've seen a lot of ads from companies that offer to help with mortgage restructuring. Are they legitimate?

Maybe. Maybe not. Crooks respond to headlines and trends. When it became apparent that many Americans were having trouble paying their mortgages, the scam artists seized the opportunity to offer their own form of "help." But instead of getting homeowners out of mortgage trouble, these crooks take your money and run -- or may even take your home.

You may find them by reading a compelling ad or receiving a convincing phone call. Their tactics are varied and clever. Sometimes they search through the government's public foreclosure documents and send you a personalized letter offering to help you save your home. The scam artists may offer to negotiate with your lender -- then run off with your money instead. In some of the worst cases, they may deceive you by claiming the documents you're signing are to restructure the terms of your existing mortgage, but instead you unwittingly transfer the title of your house to the scam artists. Another ploy is to ask you to surrender the title and remain in the home as a renter, then buy it back over several years -- but the contracts include outrageous buyback terms that make it nearly impossible for you to get your house back. Or they offer to find a buyer for your home and share the profits with you, but only if you sign over the deed and move out.

Beware of companies or individuals that charge a fee to enroll you in a government program to help you with your mortgage. You can do that yourself for free. Some may be out to steal your money; others are looking to gather important information to steal your identity.

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Housing-related scams have become such a big problem that federal and state agencies started working together to crack down on the crooks. The Federal Trade Commission recently surveyed online and print advertising for mortgage-foreclosure rescue operations and identified 71 separate companies running suspicious ads, and states have brought more than 150 enforcement actions against mortgage-rescue companies. The FTC recently warned homeowners to avoid businesses that:

  • Guarantee to stop the foreclosure process -- no matter what your circumstances.

  • Advise you not to contact your lender, lawyer, or credit or housing counselor.

  • Collect a fee before providing any services.

  • Accept payment only by cashier's check or wire transfer.

  • Encourage you to lease your home so you can buy it back over time.

  • Tell you to make your mortgage payments directly to the business, rather than to your lender.

  • Advise you to transfer your property deed or title.

  • Offer to buy your house for cash at a fixed price that is not set by the housing market at the time of sale.

  • Offer to fill out paperwork for you.

  • Pressure you to sign papers you haven't had a chance to read thoroughly or that you don't understand.

But don't despair. There are many sources of legitimate help. First, tell your lender that you're having trouble making payments and find out if you can negotiate a new payment schedule. If that doesn't work -- or if you're just nervous about approaching your mortgage company -- contact a housing counselor approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, says Ted Beck, president and chief executive of the National Endowment for Financial Education. "Talk with them first so that you can get comfortable. They can give you guidance on how to get your information together and what assistance you might be eligible for -- so you have a good, vetted source of information." You can find a HUD-approved housing counselor in your area at the HUD Web site, or you can get help through the Homeownership Preservation Foundation (at www.995hope.org or by calling 888-995-HOPE).

For more information about the government's new refinancing and loan-modification programs -- including a valuable tool to help you see if you're eligible for this assistance -- go to MakingHomeAffordable.gov. This site also includes a lot of resources for people who don't qualify for these government programs, and it provides alerts about recent mortgage-rescue scams. And check the FTC's Scam Watch for information about all kinds of scams and how to report potential problems.

Keep in mind that the legitimate forms of help can take time. "Don't assume this is going to be done over you lunch hour," says Beck. You may need to prove hardship, prove your income and prove that you're eligible for some of the government programs. "But if you can get all your information together, there may be some real potential for you if you qualify." Be suspicious of anyone who promises otherwise.

For more information, see Fighting a Foreclosure and my Do You Qualify for Housing Help? column. And for more information about today's big scams focusing on stimulus help, see Watch Out for Stimulus Scams.

Got a question? Ask Kim at askkim@kiplinger.com.




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