Avoid Foreclosure Rescue Scams

With foreclosure rescue scams widespread as more homeowners fall behind on mortgage payments, be smart if you seek help.

Scam artists often target homeowners who are facing foreclosure. Knowing about the warning signs can prevent you from becoming a victim. Image: fotog/Getty Images

A record high 2.8 million properties were hit with foreclosure notices in 2009, putting even more Americans at risk of facing foreclosure rescue scams. Homeowners who fall behind on mortgage payments need to tread carefully when seeking assistance, since foreclosure rescue scams come in many guises. A day spent researching legitimate options, from a mortgage modification or principal forebearance to a short sale or deed-in-lieu, could keep you from becoming a scam victim.

Foreclosure rescue scams run rampant

Homeowners facing foreclosure are prime targets for scam artists. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission identified 71 companies running suspicious foreclosure rescue ads, and the Better Business Bureau counts foreclosure rescue rip-offs among its top 10 scams. Understanding how these scams work can help you avoid becoming a victim.

The variations are seemingly endless, but one popular foreclosure scam involves a representative of a so-called foreclosure rescue company promising to negotiate a deal with your lender. The rep, vowing to take care of everything, will instruct you not to contact your lender, lawyer, or credit counselor during the supposed negotiations. The more brazen ones will even tell you to pay your mortgage directly to them.

Once you pay an upfront fee or hand over a few months’ worth of mortgage payments, the scam artist will disappear. You’ll be left with an emptier wallet and a mortgage that’s in even deeper trouble because no deal was cut and no payments were made on your behalf. According to John Riggins, chief executive of the Fort Worth, Texas, office of the Better Business Bureau, upfront fees can range from $500 to $5,000.

Rip-offs come in many forms

A bankruptcy foreclosure scam can involve a promise to fend off foreclosure in exchange for an upfront fee. Instead of getting you legitimate relief, the fraudster will pocket the fee and secretly file a bankruptcy case in your name. The scam may seem to work initially, because a bankruptcy filing will stop foreclosure proceedings temporarily, but they’ll resume. Compounding your problems, a bankruptcy can mar your credit report for 10 years.

Another common scam, called the bait-and-switch, results in a scam artist taking ownership of your home. You sign documents supposedly for a new loan that will make your mortgage current. What’s really happening is you’re signing over the deed of your house. In this scenario you would still owe on your mortgage but no longer own the home.

In a rent-to-own scheme, you’re told to surrender a home’s deed as part of a deal that lets you stay put as a renter. The scam artist, perhaps claiming to be able to refinance at a better rate with you off the title, promises to sell the house back to you in the future. However, terms of the deal may make it all but impossible for you to repurchase the home, or the scammer may get you evicted by raising the rent beyond your means. Either way, you end up losing the home while remaining on the hook for the unpaid mortgage.

Look out for red flags

Being aware of the warnings signs can protect you from foreclosure rescue scams. Red flags include:

  • Demands for high upfront fees.
  • Guarantees to stop a foreclosure.
  • Instructions to make mortgage payments to someone other than your lender.
  • Pressure to sign over a deed.

Legitimate foreclosure counselors won’t put on a full-court press, nor will they guarantee that you won’t lose your home to foreclosure. What they will do is review your financial situation and offer up options. Foreclosure counselors approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development won’t charge you a fee either.

Legitimate ways to get foreclosure help

There are a number of legitimate ways to contend with foreclosure. If you’ve missed mortgage payments, start by getting in touch with your lender. Ask to speak with someone in the Loss Mitigation Department and explain your situation.

Your lender may be able to arrange a repayment plan, called a special forbearance, based on your current economic circumstances. The lender could even give you a temporary reduction in your monthly payment or suspend payments for a period of time.

With a principal forbearance, the lender will reduce the amount of your mortgage, thus reducing your monthly payments. However, the amount of the principal reduction doesn’t disappear. Rather, it’s tacked on to the end of the loan, effectively creating a balloon payment.

A federally facilitated mortgage modification could also help. The Making Home Affordable modification program pays lenders to re-work loan terms and lower monthly payments. Be prepared to gather lots of paperwork and undergo a trial modification.

If all else fails, you may need to give up your home. If so, look into the federal Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives program. HAFA offers lenders financial incentives to opt for a short sale or deed-in-lieu rather than a foreclosure. In a short sale, a lender agrees for a home to be sold for less than the outstanding mortgage, and then considers the debt paid off. In a deed-in-lieu, a homeowner turns over the home to the lender, and the mortgage is closed.