Beware of mortgage scams
The economy has had a detrimental effect on home ownership. Unemployment and underemployment have made it tough for many homeowners to maintain current mortgage payments. In attempts to get assistance and avoid foreclosure, vulnerable homeowners become prime targets for scam artists who are taking advantage of people through a wide array of mortgage scams. For homeowners in need of assistance, now is the time to be more vigilant than ever.Through Dec. 31, 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had more than 2,500 pending investigations into mortgage fraud around the country. Although the scope of losses for homeowners, legitimate businesses and to the economy caused by mortgage fraud is difficult to calculate, CoreLogic, a research and analytics company, has estimated that losses due to mortgage fraud in 2011 totaled $7.4 billion.Scams from all sidesThere are many variations of mortgage scams, but the goal is the same: Take money and even property from unaware homeowners. Some scammers guarantee that they can negotiate a loan modification with your lender for an up-front fee. Others claim they are affiliated with government agencies and the new loan modification programs. Some fraudsters say they can conduct forensic loan audits to determine whether loans were made in accordance with federal and state mortgage lending laws. Other schemers convince homeowners to surrender the title or deed of their homes in exchange for a new “rescue” loan, or as part of a deal that would let the homeowners rent the home for a few years and then have the ability to repurchase the home in the future. Still others may claim that they could help expedite short sales.Some swindlers have even used direct mail with prominent use of the lender’s name to gain the trust of customers and trick them into believing an offer for assistance is from their lender. Since homeowner names, addresses, lender names and original mortgage loan amounts are available to anyone through public real estate records, con artists use this information to create direct mail pieces that confuse potential victims into thinking that they are dealing with their lender.Protect yourself and get assistanceIn order to protect yourself from scammers, always be on the look-out for key warning signs. Fraudsters might:• Request payment or charge fees in advance.• Guarantee results.• Direct homeowners to stop making mortgage payments and instead make a payment to a third-party organization.• Tell homeowners that they cannot deal with their lender directly.• Request that a homeowner sign over the deed or other papers.• Ask for personal information over the phone or email.• Pressure the customer to perform a specific action.If you are having financial difficulties in paying your mortgage, you should contact your lender and a housing counselor approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD-approved counselors can provide assistance free of charge, or for a nominal fee. A list of counseling agencies near you can be found at http://www.hud.gov. If you have doubts whether direct mail that claims to be from your lender is legitimate, call your lender directly and confirm it. And finally, if you think you have been scammed, you should file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission online at http://www.ftc.gov/complaint or call them at 877-FTC-HELP. Scammers are working hard to take advantage of people in distress. It’s imperative that you get informed and take precautions to not become their next victim.• Joel Sarmiento is the senior vice president and regional servicing community & preservation director for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage.