National Consumer Protection Week 2010, a coordinated consumer education campaign encouraging people to take full advantage of their consumer rights, takes place March 7-13. This year, the focus is on educating people at every stage of life to be safe and wise consumers. Even when consumers are under considerable financial stress, such as facing foreclosure or overwhelming debt, they should be knowledgeable of their options and wise to avoid offers that sound too good to be true.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), mortgage fraud is an escalating problem. It is the fastest growing white collar crime in the U.S. The FBI estimates annual losses of $4 billion to $6 billion in mortgage-related fraud, and the numbers are expected to increase. While there are legitimate programs to help ailing homeowners, there are also many scams that capitalize on these programs. Following are tips to help you avoid falling into a foreclosure trap:
- Talk to your mortgage lender first. If you think you are unable to make a payment, contact your lender right away. They may be able to help you identify options to bring your loan current.
- Don’t pay upfront fees. Someone asking you to pay an upfront fee in exchange for help should be a red flag that the person or company may not have your best interest at heart.
- Get promises in writing. Oral agreements relating to your home are usually not legally binding. Protect your rights with a written contract signed by the person making the promise.
- Make mortgage payments directly to your lender or mortgage servicer. Do not trust anyone else to make your mortgage payments for you.
- Be careful about transferring your title. Foreclosure scams often require you to sign ownership of your home over to a third party. Never sign over your deed without seeking legal advice first. Understand the terms of the deal you are making. By signing over your deed, you lose rights to your home and any equity.
Thankfully, legitimate help is available. A list of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved counseling agencies, like Money Management International, is available at HUD.gov. You can also look to the Homeownership Preservation Foundation for assistance by calling the HOPE Hotline at 888.995.HOPE.