Mortgage Scams

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THE offers seem like answers to the prayers of a struggling homeowner: a promise of legal tactics to forestall foreclosure, reduce mortgage balances and interest rates, or restore

But these so-called mass joinder lawsuits being advertised in mailings are fraudulent — sent out by companies purporting to be law firms, according to a consumer alert posted on the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site.

The F.T.C. last month filed a lawsuit against one operation based in Santa Ana, Calif., asserting that it had persuaded more than 1,000 homeowners nationwide to pay $6,000 to $10,000 each to join “mass joinder” suits, which are akin to class-action suits. Homeowners ended up with little or nothing in return, the F.T.C. said.

“It is an emerging trend,” said Reilly Dolan, the agency’s assistant director of financial practices, describing these fraudulent operations as part of a wide range of scams linked to loan modifications.

Consumers can lose valuable time to these dishonest players — not to mention money. The nonprofit Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has brought seven lawsuits nationwide involving fraudulent loan modifications, estimates that homeowners nationwide who reported scams to its database have lost over $60 million in the last two years alone, and that $4 million of those losses were suffered by New Yorkers.

Of course, there are many credible law firms around to help homeowners. But Mr. Dolan noted that some businesses might be promoting themselves as providers of legal services, though they might have, say, only one lawyer on retainer, as a way around F.T.C. rules that allow only lawyers to collect upfront fees on mortgage aid. And these businesses may not meet all the requirements of the rule, which also mandates that the lawyer be licensed to practice law in the state where the homeowner lives.

“We definitely get people who think they have attorneys, who have retained attorneys who are not adequately assisting them,” said Erica Jo Gilles, the deputy director for advocacy and outreach at the South Brooklyn Legal Services.

Such firms, and people posing as lawyers, are fueling a 60 percent jump in complaints about mortgage scams this year, according to a report this month by the Homeownership Preservation Foundation, which helps distressed homeowners. The nonprofit group says the increase coincides with the announcement of new federal relief programs for homeowners.

So how can consumers protect themselves from unscrupulous operations? Here are some suggestions from industry experts.

CHECK CREDENTIALS State bar associations have lists of licensed lawyers. (And the National Organization of Bar Counsel Web site has links to state bar associations.) When speaking with a lawyer, consumers might ask about the lawyer’s track record, including documentation of successes via media reports or signed court documents awarding borrowers money or relief. Local bar associations can provide the names of lawyers who specialize in foreclosure and loan modification, as can housing counselors from nonprofit groups in some instances.

BEWARE OF PROMISES “Legitimate lawyers don’t make guarantees, just like doctors don’t,” said Colleen Hernandez, the chief executive of the Homeownership Preservation Foundation. In particular, Mr. Dolan of the F.T.C. suggested avoiding firms that promise to restore credit.

DON’T PAY IN ADVANCE “If they’re asking for any kind of money, you want to say, ‘N-O,’ ” said Martha Cedeno-Ross, a counselor at Neighborhood Housing Services in Waterbury, Conn. She notes that there are plenty of free services available at nonprofit groups certified by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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