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Phony foreclosure aid is targeted

Homeowners are warned about mortgage scams

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / June 8, 2010

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Homeowners struggling to make mortgage payments beware: Some people promising help just want to grab your scarce dollars.

That is the key message of a campaign launched in Massachusetts yesterday to alert homeowners to the proliferation of loan modification schemes nationwide. The campaign, backed by local, state, and federal agencies, urges owners not to pay any money in advance of a securing a refinancing deal and advises them to use a federally approved loan counselor for refinancing and to report suspected fraud to federal or state authorities.

“Loan modification scams are reaching epidemic proportions across the nation,’’ said Thomas J. Curry, a board member of NeighborWorks America, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit spearheading the nationwide program. “Countless fraudulent companies are making a great deal of money by preying on the fears of worried homeowners.’’

The effort comes as foreclosure activity mounts in Massachusetts. During the first four months of the year, 4,821 homeowners lost their properties to lenders, a 36.6 percent increase from the same time a year ago, according to Warren Group, a Boston company that tracks local real estate. Another 9,008 homeowners went into foreclosure during that time.

Grace Ross, a founder of the nonprofit Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending, praised the new campaign as a much-needed effort to keep financial predators from taking advantage of desperate homeowners. Only a small percentage of people seeking relief from lenders are getting it, she said, and many are not aware of their legal rights.

“The crisis continues,’’ Ross said of foreclosures in the state.

Barbara Anthony, undersecretary of the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, said officials are working on many fronts to help homeowners, including by hosting workshops to bring lenders and mortgage holders together.

“A seemingly quick fix to a foreclosure can be attractive to families in the midst of a crisis, but homeowners need to be aware of the potential to be scammed,’’ said Anthony. “The quick-and-easy promises of unscrupulous entities offer false hope.’’

Mortgage loan schemes in Massachusetts typically fall into one of three categories, according to the state attorney general’s office.

They include attempts to dupe homeowners into transferring ownership of their properties to someone else; programs that charge hefty fees but provide little or no help; and for-fee bankruptcy filings that are intended to help an owner keep their house, but are rejected by the courts because of improper paperwork.

Homeowners are urged to avoid anyone who guarantees a way to avoid foreclosure and to make sure a counseling agency is approved by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The campaign will feature fliers, public service announcements, and placards on buses. For more information about how to avoid foreclosure and report suspected scams, visit www.loanscamalert.org or call 1-888-995-4673.

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com.