No apparent economic boost from tax cuts
Private tax collectors 1, taxpayers 0

Desperate homeowners = scam targets

A sad -- and frustrating, mind-boggling and infuriating -- story in today's New York Times puts some personal faces on the growing foreclosure situation I blogged about last week.

Known as equity stripping, the Times reports that the scheme takes various forms, typically involving promises to distressed homeowners of cash upfront, free monthly rent and a chance to ultimately hold onto their houses.

"But in the process, someone else takes over the deed, borrows as much as possible against the value of the house and pockets the cash," write Gretchen Morgenson and Vikas Baja. "And, almost always, the homeowners still end up losing their homes."

Here's how the Federal Trade Commission describes equity stripping scams:

You need money. You don't have much income coming in each month. You have built up equity in your home. A lender tells you that you could get a loan, even though you know your income is just not enough to keep up with the monthly payments. The lender encourages you to "pad" your income on your application form to help get the loan approved.

This lender may be out to steal the equity you have built up in your home. The lender doesn't care if you can't keep up with the monthly payments. As soon as you don't, the lender will foreclose-taking your home and stripping you of the equity you have spent years building. If you take out a loan but don't have enough income to make the monthly payments, you are being set up. You probably will lose your home.

I agree with one of the homeowners who is fighting back in the hopes of keeping her property: "I want everyone who did it in jail ... ."

Too good to be true: Now I don't absolve homeowners who have fallen victim to this despicable practice of responsibility. Folks have got to start remembering that when things sound too good to be true, they usually are. Cliches are cliches because they happen over and over.

House_money1a_2 Some of the homeowners who now are or about to be homeless shouldn't have bought into the homeownership dream in the first place. One couple saved three years to come up with $8,000 so they could get a $226,000 mortgage. That cash was just 3.5 percent of the loan amount; and it took them three years to scrape it together. They should have bought a smaller place or not at all, at least right then.

But we all have dreams, and if the wife hadn't lost her job, they might still be making theirs work. That's the point, though. "If" always happens.

If the plumbing didn't jam up I wouldn't have had to max out the credit card to get it fixed. If the car hadn't broken down I could have made it to work. If I'd made it to work, I'd still have a job. If I had job, I could make the credit card and house payments.

Then, on top of those regular life surprises, homes multiply the "if" factor exponentially.

Almost everyday that the hubby and I have been in a house, something has happened that needed immediate attention or that we know will need attention or that we simply want to upgrade or improve. Houses, as wonderful as they can be, are indeed money pits.

All of the folks in the Times' article ran into situations that busted their already stretched finances. And being desperate, they grabbed at a solution they thought could help them save their homes.

Not everyone did so unadvisedly. The woman who advocates incarceration of the scam artists was a former employee at a national bank and she checked out the company that promised to help her hold onto her home. But too often, these operations avoid official censure long enough to screw up plenty of lives with their scams.

Avoiding scams in the first place: As described in the story, there are legal aid groups that can help scam victims. The paper also notes that states are starting to crack down on these companies and equity stripping schemes in general. That's good. Laws might help in the eventual prosecution of such criminals.

But no law will stop a crook from trying to take your money and/or your home. So if you find yourself struggling to make your house payments, beware of folks promising they can help. In addition to the equity stripping scam, the FTC details several other schemes that target distressed homeowners.

And instead of falling victim to criminals, here are some steps you can take the minute you discover you can't make a mortgage payment:

One constant in all these articles: Take action, preferably by talking to your existing mortgage holder, as soon as possible. It's easier to come up with a solution when you're just just one payment overdue instead of several months late.

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