Who Can You Trust?
The Foreclosure Rescue Scam Crisis in New York
Who Can You Trust: The Foreclosure Rescue Scam Crisis in New York is a joint project of the Center for NYC Neighborhoods and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Visit cnycn.org/scams to see news updates and more information.
Imagine that you are at risk of losing your home, the home that you and your family worked so hard to buy. Whether due to a loss of employment, unforeseen medical costs, disability, or some other unexpected change in your life, you have fallen behind on your mortgage and received a notice from your bank that you could lose your home. You are terrified that any day you could arrive from work to find your home repossessed and your belongings on the curb.
You are desperate for a solution. You’ve tried calling your bank, but it is hard to get the answers you need. You’ve submitted and resubmitted paperwork attempting to lower your payments through a mortgage modification, but have not had any success.
You know you need help, but are unsure where to turn. You may even feel too ashamed to ask your friends and neighbors for ideas. Then, one day, you get a call from a company offering the help you’ve been looking for. The person on the phone understands your dilemma, answers all your questions, and tells you the good news: if you work with him, you will be able to save your home! His fee is $4,000, a difficult sum to pay given your circumstances, but one that comes with a guaranteed affordable mortgage modification. You arrange a monthly payment plan, relieved that your nightmare is finally coming to an end.
A few months and several thousand dollars later, you start to worry when you have not yet received your promised modification. You feel frustrated, but when you call the organization for updates, no one answers the phone. Finally, you head over to their office to get some answers, only to find a shuttered building with no trace of the organization you’ve been paying for the last few months. It finally dawns on you: you’ve been scammed. Worse, you are now further behind on your mortgage, no closer to a solution, and in an even more unstable financial situation.
Unfortunately, the scenario is all too common in New York in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. Day after day, scammers take advantage of more and more homeowners struggling to keep their homes. The foreclosure crisis is most closely associated with the avalanche of foreclosures that occurred during the worst recession since the Great Depression. But for advocates, housing counselors, and homeowners around the country, the crisis has a rarely discussed and drastically underreported second wave — a wave of foreclosure rescue fraud, which exists because of the unprecedented number of homeowners who suddenly became vulnerable to foreclosure.
As this report demonstrates, foreclosure rescue scams are, unsurprisingly, most prevalent in those communities most impacted by the foreclosure crisis. They disproportionately impact homeowners of color. They cause severe damage not only to the financial well-being of victims, but also to their overall family stability, all the while putting their homes in further jeopardy of foreclosure.
Scammers aggressively seek out more customers every day, exploiting their desperation by offering false promises of much needed help. Unfortunately, many homeowners lack an awareness of foreclosure rescue scams, how to avoid them, and where to go for assistance. The good news is that legitimate help is available to New Yorkers at risk of foreclosure — and it’s free.
Continuing to take law enforcement actions against scammers is essential. However, more work in the area of educating homeowners, as well as the trusted community leaders and institutions they turn to for advice, about the risk of scams and how to connect to legitimate services is needed as well. By connecting homeowners in need of help to free, high-quality legal services and housing counseling at non-profit organizations, we can cut scammers out of the equation while maximizing the likelihood that a homeowner will be able to find a home-saving solution.
Learn more about Gloria from Queens, NY.
Foreclosure Rescue Scams: the Roots of the Crisis
The epidemic of foreclosure rescue fraud is a direct consequence of the foreclosure crisis and the resulting recession that began in 2008. Today, the crisis has resulted in thousands of foreclosures in New York State and even more homeowners struggling to make monthly mortgage payments. While foreclosures have declined in many parts of the country, in New York foreclosure starts (signaled by a court filing known as a “lis pendens”) are on the rise again, with filings increasing 30 percent in 2013 over 2012. Worse, there remains a tremendous backlog of owners stuck in the foreclosure process and thousands more families continue to fall behind on their mortgage payments each month.
For homeowners who have fallen behind on their mortgage payments, the challenges of the foreclosure crisis are a daily source of stress, confusion, and anger. Many of these homeowners were victims of predatory lending and were marketed toxic mortgages that were unaffordable in the first place. Others have suffered job losses and other economic hardships as a result of the recession that resulted from the housing market crash.
“I’m more angry with [my bank] than I am with the people who ripped me off.”
Foreclosure rescue fraud presents a second wave of hardship for these homeowners and the neighborhoods they call home. Today, vulnerable homeowners are targeted yet again, this time by a cottage industry of groups offering foreclosure rescue services under false pretenses. They market themselves as the knight in shining armor who will save the homeowner from foreclosure. In reality, they often turn out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, wreaking havoc on the financial and emotional wellbeing of homeowners.
The widespread proliferation of subprime loans was a major cause of the foreclosure crisis and the 2008 Great Recession. The scourge of subprime lending disproportionately impacted African American and Latino homeowners: numerous analyses have demonstrated that they were consistently more likely to receive subprime and other high-risk loan products, even after accounting for income and credit risk status.2 The spike in foreclosures among homeowners who received subprime and other high-risk loan products created a large pool of homeowners eager for help modifying their mortgages and desperate for help saving their homes.
Several years after the crash of the subprime mortgage market, many foreclosure rescue scams today involve the same actors who once marketed these risky mortgage products to vulnerable communities. Once their market dried up, many former mortgage brokers simply stayed in the same neighborhoods and re-established themselves as supposed foreclosure experts.3
DIFFICULTIES WITH MORTGAGE SERVICERS
Both the foreclosure and mortgage modification processes are extremely complicated, frustrating, and scary for homeowners. The difficulty, frustration, and fear that homeowners experience as a part of these processes increases their susceptibility to scams. Nationally, homeowners seeking mortgage modifications have reported serious issues with their mortgage servicers when seeking to avoid foreclosure and modify their mortgages. Complaints include difficulty communicating with their servicer, receiving conflicting information from customer service representatives, and having to resubmit documentation unnecessarily.4
“There’s a word called desperation, and that’s key… They make you think they’ll put you on the street in 24 hours.”
Whether due to deliberate malfeasance on the part of mortgage servicers or their inability to adequately serve the high volume of homeowners seeking help, the end result is an increasingly confused, frustrated, and desperate population of homeowners, which opens the door for scammers. Several victims the Center interviewed in focus groups thought they were participating in legitimate modification programs with their servicers when in fact they were making payments to a scammer.
LACK OF INFORMATION ABOUT THE FORECLOSURE PROCESS
Living with the imminent threat of losing one’s home is stressful and traumatic. For the homeowners the Center spoke to in a series of focus groups, a lack of knowledge about the foreclosure process compounded this stress. Some scam victims were erroneously under the impression that they could return to their home and find it repossessed any day. They were unaware that foreclosure in New York State is a process that takes over two years on average and involves a series of court appearances and procedural protections for homeowners. This lack of knowledge can lead to a feeling of impending crisis, a growing desire for resolution, and a susceptibility to quick fixes. People are both unnecessarily desperate for help and unduly willing to believe that spending “a few thousand here and a few thousand there” is unavoidable, particularly if they believe they are getting legal assistance.
What is a Foreclosure Rescue Scam?
While foreclosure rescue fraud comes in various forms, it all boils down to the same result — the widespread conning of desperate homeowners throughout the United States, when they can least afford it. Knowing that there is widespread confusion among homeowners about the foreclosure process, as well as frustration with mortgage servicers regarding the modification process, scammers take advantage of the situation in several different ways.
Loan Modification Scams
The most common foreclosure rescue fraud scheme is a loan modification scam. In such a scheme, the scammer offers to negotiate with the homeowner’s lender to lower their interest rate for a price, often guaranteeing the results, at times in the form of a “money back guarantee.” More often than not, the homeowner pays, but receives no modification and no refund.
With numerous stories about subprime mortgages, robo-signing, and wrongful foreclosures, as well as the publicity surrounding large government settlements, many scammers offer to “sue those greedy banks.” In exchange for purported legal fees, scammers promise that their lawsuit will provide a modification and even additional compensation to homeowners for their trouble. Unfortunately, these lawsuits are generally fake and end up costing the homeowner thousands of dollars. These “cases” can continue on for years with homeowners paying ongoing retainer fees. Many homeowners don’t realize the fraudulent nature of the lawsuit until they receive a foreclosure notice.
Forensic Audit Scams
Similar to the lawsuit scams, forensic audit scams take advantage of media attention to robo-signing and wrongful foreclosure suits to convince homeowners that they will be able to find some kind of flaw with their own mortgage documents. In exchange for an upfront payment, so-called forensic loan "auditors," mortgage loan "auditors," or foreclosure prevention "auditors" offer to have an attorney or other expert review the homeowner’s documents to determine if their lender complied with the law, with the promise to homeowners that if they find “errors” in their mortgage documents, they can force banks to provide an affordable modification or even nullify their mortgage.
However, this too is a misrepresentation meant to ensnare homeowners in a scam. While the misdeeds of mortgage servicers in the years preceding and following the financial crisis are well-documented,6 most errors discovered through forensic audits are minor and would not lead to the cancellation of the mortgage. Further, even if a serious issue is found with the mortgage, its discovery alone would not compel the servicer to take any action: it would be necessary to litigate those issues as a defense to a foreclosure action or a separate lawsuit against the mortgage holder.
In title scams, the scammer will convince the homeowner into signing over the title to their home, often to another individual, a “straw buyer,” who may subsequently disappear, making it difficult to reverse the scam. The scammer may convince the homeowner that the transfer is temporary and in their best interest as they seek a modification or refinance, or they may simply have the homeowner sign a document transferring their title to the scammer without understanding the full and permanent impact of the transaction.
Fraud by Impersonation
In these cases, scammers convince homeowners that they are a representative of their mortgage servicer or a government program such as the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). They tell them that they have received a mortgage modification, and direct them to make their new mortgage payments to a new bank account. Of course, these “payments” go directly to the scammer.
Impact of Scams
As with the foreclosure crisis itself, New Yorkers have been hit hard by the foreclosure rescue scam epidemic. From March 2010 to September 2014, New York homeowners have submitted over 2,700 foreclosure rescue scam complaints, documenting at least $8.25 million in losses.7 As of September 2014, the national Loan Modification Scam Database, managed by the Lawyers' Committee, has compiled over 42,000 complaints with total reported losses of over $98 million to homeowners. New York homeowners trail only California and Florida in the number of complaints reported to the Loan Modification Scam Database. Further, New York homeowners report larger losses to scammers than in the rest of the country, losing almost $900 more on average than homeowners nationwide.
On average, each New York homeowner harmed by scams reported a loss of $4,187; however, the actual damage is likely much greater.8 This dollar figure underestimates the complex hardship caused by foreclosure rescue scams because it does not account for the potential domino effect these scams can have. Homeowners may lose several thousand dollars in cash payments to a scammer, but then can end up losing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars more because their homes fall into foreclosure as a direct result of the scam. For example, the majority of scam victims (57 percent of cases reported to the Loan Modification Scam Database) indicated that the scammer asked them to either redirect their mortgage payments, stop making their loan payments, or sign over the title of their property. As a result, scam victims lose both time and money, both of which are essential to prevent losing their homes to foreclosure.
“I lived in fear. I was very upset. This company was supposed to be helping me and they weren’t.”
A further hardship not measurable in dollars is the extensive damage to victims’ emotional well-being and their trust in public and private institutions. Being at risk of losing your home is an extremely stressful situation for anyone. For scam victims, the stress of foreclosure is compounded by their experience of victimization.
Learn more about Annette from Queens, NY.
Who is Targeted by Scams?
Throughout New York State, reports of foreclosure rescue scams to the Loan Modification Scam Database are concentrated in areas with high levels of foreclosure activity.9
The vast majority of reported foreclosure rescue scams occur in the New York City metropolitan area, particularly in the outer boroughs of New York City and on Long Island.
Counties outside of the New York City metro area with higher levels of scam activity include: Erie County (home to Buffalo) and Monroe County (home to Rochester). Within New York City, the communities with the highest numbers of reported scams are Southeast Brooklyn, Southeast Queens, and the Northeast Bronx.
The foreclosure crisis had a particularly devastating impact on African American and Latino homeowners. Even when accounting for income, they were disproportionately targeted for subprime loans and other forms of loans that proved more likely to lead to foreclosure, such as prepayment penalties and hybrid or option adjustable rate mortgages.10 These communities continue to reel in the Great Recession’s aftermath: half of the collective wealth of African-American families was lost during the Great Recession both due to the dominant role of home equity in their total net worth and the prevalence of predatory high-risk loans in communities of color. Likewise, the Latino community lost an astounding 67 percent of its total wealth during the housing collapse.11
Half of the collective wealth of African-American families was lost during the Great Recession. Likewise, the Latino community lost an astounding 67 percent of its total wealth during the housing collapse.
Just as they were disproportionately harmed by the foreclosure crisis, minority homeowners are much more likely to have been scammed compared to white homeowners in New York. For example, while African American homeowners constitute only 8 percent of New York State homeowners, they represent 30 percent of mortgage rescue scam victims in the Loan Modification Scam Database. Similarly, Latinos constitute only 6 percent of homeowners, yet they represent 20 percent of scam victims.12
Not only are African American and Latino homeowners more likely to suffer from foreclosure rescue scams, but also, if they do become victims, they lose more at the hands of scammers than white homeowners do in New York State.
African American homeowners report an average loss of $5,467, which is 76 percent more than the average reported by white homeowners. Similarly, Latino homeowners report an average loss of $4,654, which is 50 percent more than the average reported by white homeowners.
Homeownership is often billed as an opportunity for minority Americans to build assets and climb into the middle class, but scammers in New York keep many minority homeowners from having that opportunity.
Foreclosure rescue scams also disproportionately impact older New York homeowners: while the average loss per New York homeowner is already well above the national average, the older a New York homeowner is, the more money he or she loses. According to the Loan Modification Scam Database, in New York, homeowners aged 36-50 reported an average loss of $4,248, while homeowners aged 51 and over reported losses of $4,531 per scam, a difference of nearly $300. Many older homeowners live on limited or fixed incomes, which makes any additional loss that much more difficult to recover from.
In response to the wave of foreclosure rescue fraud that followed closely after the foreclosure crisis, the federal government, New York State, and New York City passed laws and issued regulations seeking to combat rampant fraud and regulate the growing for-profit mortgage rescue services industry as well as the individuals—referred to as distressed property consultants—who work in it. At the federal level, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau’s Regulation O (formerly known as the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services (MARS) rule),13 governs how these services can be marketed and provided. In New York State, the Distressed Properties Consulting Contracts law provides further requirements,14 and the New York City Disclosure Requirements for Distressed Property Consultants code regulates advertising within New York City.15
Here are some requirements that scammers routinely violate:
Distressed property consultants must not guarantee that their services will result in a modification or other positive result. According to Regulation O, all advertising for services must include the following disclaimer: “Even if you accept this offer and use our service, your lender may not agree to change your loan.”
With a few exceptions, it is illegal for a distressed property consultant to take upfront fees for their services. Attorneys are exempted from the upfront fee restriction so long as they are engaged in the practice of law and licensed in the state where the foreclosure action is taking place; however, Regulation O dictates that they must place any fees they collect in a client trust account.
Both New York and federal law requires the consultant to enter into a written agreement or contract with the homeowner that details the services that will be provided and the total amount that will be charged. New York requires an additional disclosure that the homeowner should consider consulting an attorney or government-approved housing counselor, independent from anyone recommended by the consultant.
Growing Attorney Involvement
The involvement of real or alleged attorneys in rescue scams has been on the rise, both nationally and in New York: today, the majority of scams in New York now involve a person who is, or claims to be, an attorney. Worse, scam operations that involve an attorney do the most damage to New York homeowners.
One factor driving this increase is the enactment of the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services (MARS) rule, now known as Regulation O, in 2010. Regulation O bans the collection of upfront payments except by attorneys, who are allowed to collect upfront fees if they are engaged in the practice of law, if they are licensed to practice law in the state where the homeowner or the property facing foreclosure is located, and if they deposit the fees in a client trust account. In response, scammers have increasingly involved real (or fictitious) attorneys in their operations, likely as a means of circumventing the upfront payment restriction.
The involvement of an attorney in a foreclosure rescue scam organization may provide the homeowner with a false sense of confidence in the scammer’s ability to deliver promised foreclosure relief. Unfortunately, for victims the only outcome is that they are likely to lose even more money: New York-based scam operations that involve an attorney do the most damage to New York homeowners. According to complaint reports compiled in the Lawyers’ Committee’s national Loan Modification Scam Database, New York homeowners who reported an in-state operation involving an attorney are reporting an average loss of $5,212 per scam — $1,437 more than the average lost in scams without attorney involvement.
New York attorneys are also causing problems for homeowners nationwide. Out of the over 1,200 homeowners not located in New York who submitted complaint reports against a New York-based scammer, 73 percent of them report attorney involvement in the scam.16
Learn more about Mary from Bronx, NY.
The Need to Increase Scam Awareness
Foreclosure rescue scams are extremely prevalent in communities that were hard-hit by the foreclosure crisis. In these communities, scam operations can be extremely aggressive in their search for new victims. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, many homeowners targeted by scammers are unaware that foreclosure rescue scams exist and lack the knowledge necessary both to defend themselves and to locate legitimate help.
IDENTIFYING SCAMS IS A CHALLENGE
Without an understanding of foreclosure law or knowledge of the standard characteristics of a scam, homeowners have a difficult time assessing whether a service offered is legitimate or not. Scammers generally build trust with victims by either exaggerating their professionalism and mimicking legitimate programs or by identifying personal similarities and connections. Many scammers make use of government logos or program names on their advertising, making it extremely difficult for homeowners to discern legitimate mail. They lend themselves credibility by using the names and logos of federal government agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and programs such as the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) and the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP). Some scams are highly sophisticated operations, with professional-looking offices and websites, as well as radio and television advertisements. This gives them the appearance of legitimacy and professionalism and, by extension, trustworthiness.
“I thought, ‘I’m too smart for this.’ I blamed myself. For months, I kept asking myself ‘What were you thinking?”
— Brooklyn homeowner
Sadly, some homeowners were not even behind on their mortgage when they fell victim to scams. Rather, some homeowners were just looking to refinance into a better interest rate. Instead of going to a bank or broker, they found their way into the offices of scammers. In these situations, they believed they were participating in a genuine mortgage modification or refinance program, yet their monthly payments were going to the scammer, not their servicer. Ultimately, they fell behind on their mortgages because of the money they paid to the scam.
Many scam victims initially turned to community organizations and their elected officials when they ran into trouble paying their mortgage. Unfortunately, for the most part, they received neither services nor advice on where to obtain legitimate, high-quality help, likely because the individuals they interacted with at these institutions were unaware of the free, high-quality services available to New Yorkers.
In other cases, homeowners sought advice from their mortgage servicers on whether they were working with a legitimate organization, but the servicers were generally less than helpful. In one case, a servicer representative indicated name recognition of a common scammer, which unfortunately implied to the homeowner that the scammer was legitimate.
Finally, victims described several missed opportunities for the judges or referees handling their foreclosure cases to intervene. Victims had scammers who didn’t appear for court dates, or who did appear and then admitted to the judge that they were not attorneys. In one instance, the judge ultimately referred a homeowner to the Legal Aid Society after her supposed “attorney” missed numerous court dates.
“I didn’t know Bronx Legal Services existed. It was a godsend.”
— Bronx homeowner
UNAWARE OF FREE HELP
Most scam victims surveyed in the Center’s focus groups reported that they were unaware that help is available for free. Generally, homeowners did not realize that they can call 311 in New York City or the New York State Attorney General’s Homeowner Protection Program hotline at 855-HOME-456 (855-466-3456) anywhere in New York State to get connected with free assistance. Some homeowners did know about free legal and housing counseling services, but chose to pay for help because they thought it would lead to better outcomes. This attitude was especially prevalent among Spanish-speaking scam victims.
“She told me…these people are stealing money from you. We can help you without charging a cent.”
— Queens homeowner
Despite initial negative assumptions about seeking free help, the homeowners the Center interviewed (all of whom eventually worked with community-based, non-profit legal services providers) expressed high levels of satisfaction with the quality of the services they received. In the end, they all wished they had contacted them sooner.
Prioritize Enforcement Efforts Against Scammers
Recently, a number of high profile prosecutions against foreclosure rescue scammers have successfully brought scammers to justice while promoting public awareness of scams.18 Continuing these actions at all levels of enforcement, from County District Attorney Offices to the New York State Attorney General’s Office, to the Department of Justice at the federal level, is essential.
Crack Down on Illegal and Deceptive Advertising
Foreclosure rescue scam operations routinely purchase advertisements on the radio, Internet, and, to a lesser extent, television and print media. Unfortunately, their use of these established, trusted forums can wrongfully validate their operations in the eyes of homeowners while greatly increasing their reach. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Regulation O spells out clear disclosure requirements for advertisements by distressed property consultants. Specifically, an advertisement must disclose that the company is not associated with or approved by the government, and also that a modification is not guaranteed.19 Law enforcement agencies could work with print, radio, broadcast, and Internet media sources to identify advertisements that do not make the required disclosures and remove them from circulation.
Government Programs Should Engage Non-profit Groups
New York State has a network of non-profits providing foreclosure prevention counseling and legal services. The professionals at these organizations work with homeowners and encounter foreclosure rescue scams on a daily basis. Engaging these housing counselors and attorneys in scam prevention efforts promotes greater information sharing with law enforcement and significantly strengthens their ability to identify bad actors and emerging trends.
Furthermore, for the implementation of new programs, early coordination with community-based organizations will give agencies that are devising the programs the benefit of on-the-ground expertise in avoiding scammers.
Support Private Litigation by Homeowners
While criminal and civil enforcement actions against scammers are necessary to obtain justice and deter other scammers, enforcement actions may not necessarily obtain compensation for the scam victim’s losses. Victims also have the right to sue the scammer in a private action. Unfortunately, some scammers can be difficult to sue and collect against, due to the fly-by-night nature of their operations, as well as their lack of collectible assets. Therefore, victims may have a difficult time finding private attorneys to take their case on a contingency fee basis (where the attorney agrees to waive an upfront fee in exchange for accepting a portion of the judgment as their payment). Some non-profit legal services agencies in New York City have recently begun to bring civil suits on behalf of groups of scam victims, but resources for these efforts are very limited. Non-profits throughout the state could potentially take on more of these cases as part of their work were there additional funding to hire the necessary staff.
Pursue Disciplinary Sanctions Against Attorneys Involved in Scams
Given the growing involvement of attorneys in foreclosure rescue scams, an increased emphasis on professional sanctions — including disbarment — for these attorneys is appropriate and needed. While victims may file complaints directly with the appropriate New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division Disciplinary Committee, the complaint process requires a significant amount of time, as well as the ability to navigate a system that can be intimidating and difficult to navigate for members of the general public. Greater collaboration among courts, bar associations, and advocacy group across the state could work to address this by creating a more user-friendly process specifically for foreclosure rescue scams.
Consider Banning Upfront Fees for Attorneys
Attorneys are now involved in the majority of reported foreclosure rescue scams in New York State, and one factor behind their increasing involvement with scams is their exemption from the New York State law prohibiting the collection of upfront fees for foreclosure rescue services. In response to similar concerns, the State of California banned upfront fees for attorneys in 2009.20 It may be time to implement legislation that follows suit in New York.
Recent Enforcement Actions Against Foreclosure Rescue Scams
- In August 2014, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against four companies, Home Affordable Direct, Inc., Home Affordable Solutions, Inc, JR Holding Group Corp, and Clear Solutions and Settlements, Inc., for allegedly operating a loan modification scam. The lawsuit alleged that these organizations collected illegal upfront fees, ranging from $1,500 to over $11,000, while failing to carry through on their promises to provide homeowners relief from unaffordable mortgage payments through loan modifications.21
- In August 2014, three men, Ped Abghari, Dionysius Fiuman, and Justin Romano were indicted in federal court on allegations that they defrauded more than 8,000 homeowners across all 50 states through a telemarketing scheme that resulted in $18.5 million of upfront fees paid by homeowners. According to the indictment, the defendants misled homeowners to believe that they would be preapproved for lower mortgage payments through the Home Affordable Modification Program.22
- In September 2014, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program Christy Romero announced the conviction of California man Alan David Tikal, who targeted non-English speaking homeowners at risk of foreclosure. Over the course of three and a half years, he collected approximately $5.8 million from more than 1,000 homeowners to whom he had promised help with mortgage modifications through the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP).23
- In August 2011, Roger Huggins was convicted in Queens County Supreme Court of first-degree grand larceny for running a title fraud foreclosure rescue scam that targeted New York City homeowners. Huggins was co-owner of Home Solutions Management, which instructed homeowners to put the title to their home in the name of a third-party purchaser, so they could help improve their credit or attain a loan modification. Home Solutions Management would later fabricate excuses to hold the funds in escrow or convince homeowners to sell or transfer their properties directly to them for lower prices. Huggins and his partners were sentenced to four to twelve years in state prison.24
Educated consumers are the best line of defense against scammers. The victims the Center spoke with had very little knowledge about the foreclosure process or the predominance of scams, and did not know where to seek legitimate help. By establishing easy-to-use resources for homeowners, employing diverse messaging strategies for diverse communities, and undertaking repeated and concerted outreach efforts to individual homeowners and larger community networks, we can significantly decrease the number of homeowners who fall victim to these scams. National campaigns such as the Loan Modification Scam Alert Campaign by NeighborWorks America show the value of providing homeowners with information to empower them to avoid scams. Ultimately, reaching at-risk homeowners before they come into contact with scammers and directing them, instead, to legitimate services is essential to curbing these pervasive scams.
Messaging Should Focus on the Prevalence of Scams and Provide Referrals to Trustworthy Organizations
Scam operations are often highly sophisticated and many homeowners have limited abilities to discern whether an organization is legitimate using their own resources. Therefore, consumer education messaging should focus on the prevalence of scams and seek to put homeowners on a more heightened alert. This messaging should emphasize that although a scammer may seem legitimate, the best way to connect with legitimate, high-quality help at no cost is to call the New York State Attorney General’s Homeowner Protection Program hotline at 855-HOME-456 (855-466-3456) or visit the HOPP website at www.AGHomeHelp.com. Overall, the brands of New York State and New York City were the only ones that garnered near-universal trust among participants in the focus groups, though importantly, some of the Spanish-speaking homeowners the Center spoke to were more likely to trust Spanish-language publications over government.
Reach At-Risk Homeowners Through Multiple Channels
A variety of methods and channels should be used as part of a consumer education campaign targeted at homeowners. Particular emphasis should be placed on homeowners at risk of foreclosure, though homeowners who are not behind but simply seeking an interest rate reduction should be targeted as well. In addition, homeowners from different backgrounds and communities should be approached in different ways.
- Direct Outreach to Consumers: Homeowners who are in foreclosure or at risk of foreclosure should be contacted directly to alert them to scam red flags and direct them to free foreclosure prevention services.25 While many homeowners do currently receive warnings about foreclosure-related scams in notices from their mortgage company, duplicating this message in a different context is likely to make it resonate more. Additionally, New York law mandates the wording of notices to homeowners, both in a pre-foreclosure notice, as well as when a foreclosure is initiated. Although these notices do provide an embedded warning about foreclosure-related scams, the letter begins with the phrase “You are in danger of losing your home.” Homeowners may not digest the information about scams in the context of the notice, particularly if they have a strong emotional reaction to the opening phrase. Replicating the essential scam related information in a less threatening letter would provide a greater opportunity for the message to get through to at-risk homeowners.
- News Coverage: If law enforcement and regulatory agencies ramp up enforcement actions against foreclosure rescue scammers, as recommended here, New Yorkers will benefit from greater awareness of scammers because of increased media coverage. Without continued public attention on the tremendous harm that can come from working with one of these scammers, homeowners could continue to be deceived and taken advantage of.
- Advertising: Conducting a high-profile Public Service Announcement campaign warning homeowners about foreclosure rescue scammers would reach homeowners in at-risk neighborhoods. Because scammers focus so much of their attention on advertising their services, the competition for homeowners’ attention is steep. It is therefore critical to invest in reaching at-risk homeowners before they’re approached by scammers and to educate them early on warning signs to watch out for in the near inevitable targeting to which they are subjected.
Include Community Institutions in Outreach Efforts
Many homeowners at risk of foreclosure seek help through community institutions such as community-based organizations, elected officials, and religious institutions. Unfortunately, there were a number of missed opportunities to connect the scam victims we talked to with legitimate foreclosure prevention services. It is essential that these de facto “first responders” are educated about scams and can direct homeowners to legitimate help. Strategies for reaching out to these institutions include providing flyers and information for distribution, conducting training for frontline and constituent services staff, and partnering with the Office of Court Administration to increase knowledge of scams and scam prevention among judges and court staff.
Incorporate Anti-Fraud Measures into New Government Programs
The Loan Modification Scam Prevention Network found several examples where foreclosure rescue scammers adapted and marketed their fraudulent schemes to take advantage of homeowners who were eligible for new, legitimate government programs designed to provide relief for distressed homeowners. In response, the Network engaged directly with several enforcement agencies and mortgage servicers in order to incorporate anti-scam messaging and protections into their new programs. Thus, it is important that new government programs include explicit warnings to consumers regarding potential scammers and advice for how to avoid scams.
Learn more about Sharon from Highland, NY.
Foreclosure is a devastating experience for homeowners, both financially and emotionally. To make matters worse, the cottage industry of foreclosure rescue scammers works every day to take advantage of the confusion and misery caused by the foreclosure crisis. These scams not only take homeowners’ hard-earned savings, they also put homeowners at considerably higher risk of losing their home through foreclosure by preventing them from obtaining legitimate help.
By following the recommendations made in this report, we can strike back against scammers. We believe the solution requires both a good offense, in the form of increased enforcement actions against scammers, as well as a strong defense, through strengthened scam prevention awareness and education initiatives. Currently, many homeowners lack knowledge about how to protect themselves from foreclosure rescue scams. As we get the word out about scams in impacted communities, we can empower homeowners and their communities with the tools they need to identify scams and connect homeowners to real help with their mortgages. Together, we can turn the tide against foreclosure rescue scams.
This report’s findings and recommendations derive from research conducted on foreclosure-related scams by the Center for NYC Neighborhoods and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The Center conducted four focus groups with victims of loan modification scams in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. Of the four focus groups, three took place in English and one in Spanish. Participants were identified through the Center’s network of housing counseling and legal services partners. In addition, the Center held a practitioners’ roundtable with non-profit foreclosure prevention attorneys who regularly work with victims of foreclosure-related scams to gain their perspective as legal professionals.
The Lawyers’ Committee maintains a database of scam reports that collects complaints about alleged foreclosure rescue fraud nationwide. Complaints are entered into the database through a variety of sources, including the Loan Modification Scam Prevention Network (LMSPN), www.PreventLoanScams.org, telephone calls to the Homeowner’s HOPE Hotline, and through paper complaint forms submitted by LMSPN partners (such as housing counselors) or filled out by homeowners at outreach events.
As of September 2014, the national Loan Modification Scam Database, managed by the Lawyers’ Committee, has compiled over 42,000 complaints with total reported losses of over $98 million to homeowners. The Lawyers’ Committee monitors this data to track trends in foreclosure rescue fraud nationwide.
About this Report
Who Can You Trust: The Foreclosure Rescue Scam Crisis in New York is a joint project of the Center for NYC Neighborhoods and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. This report pulls together quantitative data from national trends on foreclosure rescue scams and qualitative data from New York City, including the results of focus groups held with scam victims, to detail the landscape of harm that these scams bring to homeowners’ lives. The body of the report delves into both the real and intangible damages suffered by homeowners across New York State and provides recommendations for new interventions to protect homeowners at risk of scams.
About the Center
The Center for NYC Neighborhoods (the Center) is a non-profit organization created in 2008 in response to the foreclosure crisis through the collaborative efforts of the mayor, the New York City Council, community advocates, foundations, and corporate leaders. Since its founding, the Center has been committed to promoting and protecting affordable homeownership in New York. The Center and its Network Partners offer high-quality housing counseling and legal services, free of charge, to meet the diverse needs of New York homeowners. To date, the Center and its network have served over 30,000 homeowners. For more information about the Center, visit cnycn.org.
About the Lawyers’ Committee
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, non-profit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. We celebrated our 50th anniversary in 2013 and continue our quest of “Moving America Toward Justice.” The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law, particularly in the areas of fair housing and community development; employment; voting; education and environmental justice. For more information about the Lawyers’ Committee, visit www.lawyerscommittee.org.
The Lawyers’ Committee is a founding member of the Loan Modification Scam Prevention Network (LMSPN). The LMSPN, launched in 2010, is a national coalition of government agencies, non-profits, and service providers using education and a centralized complaint gathering process to help stop foreclosure rescue scams. This effort is led by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Homeownership Preservation Foundation (1-888-995-HOPE), NeighborWorks America (LoanScamAlert.org), and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (PreventLoanScams.org).
Report Production Credits
Focus Group Lead
Data Analysis and Mapping
The authors would like to thank the following individuals for their invaluable assistance in creating this report:
Nicole Lester Arrindell, Attorney, MFY Legal Services, Inc.
Vicki Been, Commissioner, NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development
Deborah Boatright, Regional Vice President, Northeast Region, NeighborWorks America
Rose Marie Cantanno, Attorney, New York Legal Assistance Group
Sean Capperis, Data Manager and Research Analyst, NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy
Oda Friedheim, Attorney, The Legal Aid Society
Clarissa Gomez, Attorney, The Legal Aid Society
Justin Haines, Director, Foreclosure Prevention Unit, Legal Services NYC-Bronx
Eric Halperin, Senior Advisor, Open Society Foundations
Speare Hodges, Student, Georgetown University Law Center
Alexis Iwanisziw, Research and Policy Analyst, New Economy Project
Susan Jouard, Senior Regional Public Affairs and Communications Advisor, NeighborWorks America
Matt Kutner, Attorney, New York Legal Assistance Group
Andrew Laoisa, Housing Specialist, West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center
Dina Levy, Special Assistant, NYS Office of the Attorney General
Jennifer Levy, Attorney, JASA Legal Services for the Elderly
Yolanda McGill, Manager, Loan Modification Scam Prevention Network
Jonathan Mintz, CEO, Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund
Anthony Mohen, Attorney, Grow Brooklyn
Patricia Swann, Senior Program Officer, New York Community Trust
Marnie Webb, CEO, Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup Global
Josh Zinner, Co-Director, New Economy Project
We would like to thank New York Community Trust for their generous support of our work on foreclosure rescue scams.