FTC, State Enforcers Sue Scammers, Warn Others; Announce Education Campaign Designed to Reach Borrowers Directly
The Federal Trade Commission today announced a crackdown on fraud and deception by mortgage modification and home foreclosure rescue companies. The FTC is seeking to halt the proliferation of these mortgage relief scams – which target distressed and vulnerable consumers who are delinquent or facing foreclosure – through increased law enforcement, consumer outreach, and close coordination with federal, state, and non-profit partners.
At a joint press conference today, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Attorney General Eric Holder, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, and, on behalf of state enforcers, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, joined FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in warning consumers about these types of scams and in encouraging consumers to seek out free, HUD-approved housing counselors for help with their mortgages. The FTC and Attorney General Madigan also announced enforcement actions and initiatives.
“Scammers are taking advantage of people in a difficult situation – people who are trying to modify their home mortgages or those who are trying to avoid foreclosure. We’re enforcing the law against these scam artists; we’re putting others on notice that unless they change their ways, they’re next; and we’re working with other government agencies, non-profits, and mortgage companies to reach out to our neighbors in distress with the details of how to get help,” said Chairman Leibowitz.
The FTC announced five law enforcement actions against operations using deceptive tactics to market their mortgage modification and home foreclosure relief services, including firms that marketed their “services” by giving the false impression they were affiliated with the federal government. This brings to 11 the number of loan modification and mortgage foreclosure rescue scams brought by the FTC in the last year. More than 20 state law enforcers also have taken actions against companies engaged in these types of deception, including 22 brought by Illinois Attorney General Madigan.
The FTC also announced today that it has sent warning letters to 71 companies who may be deceptively marketing mortgage loan modification or foreclosure rescue services. The FTC identified these companies through a nationwide review of Internet and other advertisements and warned these companies that their ads may violate federal law. State law enforcers also have sent warning letters to companies that are potentially engaging in such illegal practices, including more than 60 warning letters sent by Attorney General Madigan.
Finally, the FTC joined forces with a wide array of government, non-profit and mortgage industry members to launch a new consumer education campaign to help those in financial trouble avoid becoming the victims of a loan modification or foreclosure rescue scam.
FTC’s Law Enforcement Actions
The FTC announces five law enforcement actions targeting perpetrators of mortgage-related scams. According to the FTC, these schemes typically operate in the following way. First, they use terms like “guarantee” and “97% success rate” to mislead consumers about the mortgage modification or foreclosure relief services they can provide; they charge up-front fees for these “services” – fees legitimate nonprofit organizations do not charge; and they use copycat names or look-alike Web sites to appear to be a nonprofit or government entity. Often, after collecting the fee, these companies do little or nothing to help consumers. In each case described below, the FTC is seeking, or already obtained, a temporary restraining order to halt the defendants’ illegal conduct.
Federal Loan Modification Law Center (FedMod). FedMod markets mortgage loan modification and foreclosure relief services to homeowners who are in financial distress, delinquent on their mortgages, or in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure. According to the FTC’s complaint, FedMod charges consumers from $1,000 to $3,000 in fees for these services, much of which must be paid up-front, but fails in numerous instances to obtain the promised loan modifications. In radio advertisements, the FTC alleges, FedMod induces homeowners to call its toll-free number by misrepresenting that it is part of or affiliated with the federal government, although it is not. According to the complaint, FedMod often fails to answer or return consumers’ calls or provide updates about the status of their loan modifications, and assures consumers that negotiations with their lenders are proceeding when, in fact, little or no effort has been made to contact the lender.
Bailout.hud-gov.us. According to the FTC’s complaint, defendant Thomas Ryan used a foreign Internet registrar to falsely register two sites – bailout.hud-gov.us and bailout.dohgov.us. The sites were used to entice financially strapped consumers to seek mortgage loan modification services under the guise that the services were associated with, or were actually, the U.S. government, including HUD and the Treasury Department. The FTC alleges that the defendant misled consumers nationwide. A federal district court granted the FTC’s motion for a temporary restraining order which required the Internet Service Provider (ISP) hosting the sites to immediately remove them from the Internet. The FTC and the defendant stipulated to a preliminary injunction prohibiting him from holding himself out as an agency of any U.S., state, or local government, or as being affiliated with any such agency.
Home Assure d/b/a Expert Foreclosure. In this case, the FTC alleges that the defendants promise consumers facing imminent home foreclosure that they can stop the foreclosure, regardless of the amount the consumer owes his or her lender. The defendants are charged with falsely claiming that they have special relationships with lenders, have helped thousands of consumers avoid foreclosure, and will provide a 100 percent satisfaction money-back guarantee. They typically charge consumers an up-front fee of $1,500 to $2,500 but, the FTC alleges, do little or nothing to help them avoid foreclosure and fail to give refunds when foreclosures are not stopped.
Hope Now Modifications LLC and New Hope Property LLC d/b/a New Hope Modifications LLC. On March 24, the FTC announced two related cases alleging that the defendants misled consumers about their ability to provide mortgage loan modification and foreclosure relief, and misrepresented that they were affiliated with or part of the HOPE NOW Alliance, the non-profit, HUD-endorsed organization that is a broad-based coalition of credit and home ownership counselors, lenders, and other mortgage market participants. In each case, the court issued a temporary restraining order with an asset freeze and set dates for a preliminary injunction hearing. The New Jersey Attorney General also filed state court actions against both sets of defendants, and those cases are in litigation. The FTC’s press release is available at: http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/03/newhope.shtm.
FTC’s Warning Letters for Potentially Deceptive Mortgage Relief Ads
The Commission today announced that it has sent warning letters to 71 companies that are marketing potentially deceptive mortgage modification and foreclosure assistance programs. The letters inform these companies that their ads may violate federal law. The ads were identified during a nationwide surf of Internet, direct mail, and spam advertisements that focused on ads for mortgage relief targeted at financially distressed homeowners. These advertisements contain potentially deceptive claims, touting guaranteed results, success rates of over 90 percent, and claiming affiliation with homeowners’ lenders, with the HOPE NOW Alliance, or with federal government programs.
FTC’s Consumer Outreach Efforts
The FTC announced a new education initiative to reach borrowers directly with the help of a broad array of government, non-profit organizations, and mortgage industry members. Through this initiative, borrowers will receive materials about how to spot and avoid mortgage rescue scams at housing counseling outreach centers, directly from their mortgage companies, and online. Joining the FTC in the effort are The HOPE NOW Alliance, the Homeowners Preservation Foundation, and NeighborWorks America, which are non-profit organizations that work to help distressed homeowners get free help and counseling through HUD-certified housing counselors, all of whom work directly with borrowers to help them stay in their homes.
Several national mortgage companies, including Chase Home Lending, Suntrust Mortgage, and GMAC Mortgage, will be voluntarily sending consumer education information directly to consumers through a variety of methods, including during loan counseling sessions, in monthly statements, in correspondence to delinquent borrowers, and on their Web sites. Freddie Mac also is distributing consumer education materials to its servicing partners.
In addition to the New Hope Modifications and Hope Now Modification cases filed last month, the Commission today announced complaints were filed against the following defendants:
FedMod – Federal Loan Modification Law Center LLP doing business as Federal Loan Modification Law Center and under other various other names; Anz & Associates, PLC; LegalTurn, Inc.; Federal Loan Modification LLC; Boaz Minitzer, Nabile Anz, and Jeffrey Broughton. The FTC would like to thank the Attorneys General of California and Idaho, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of the Southland, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Spokane, Washington BBB for their invaluable assistance in this case. This case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
Bailout.hud-gov.us – bailout.hud-gov.us, bailout.dohgov.us, and Thomas Ryan. This case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Home Assure – Home Assure, LLC, B Home Associates, LLC, doing business as (dba) Expert Foreclosure, Michael Grieco, Michael Trimarco, Nicholas Molina, and Brian Blanchard. The defendants also have been the subject of law enforcement actions or investigations by the Minnesota, North Carolina, and Florida Attorneys General. This case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division.
The Commission vote to issue each complaint was 4-0.
NOTE: The Commission authorizes the filing of complaints when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The complaints are not a finding or ruling that the defendants actually have violated the law.
Copies of the documents related to these cases are available from the FTC’s Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,500 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s Web site provides free information on a variety of consumer topics.
(FTC File Nos. 092-3070 (FedMod); 092-3116 (bailout.hud-gov.us); and 082-3192 (Home Assure, LLC)) (Civ. Nos. SAC09 - 401 CJC (MLGx) (FedMod); 1:09-cv-00535 (bailout.hud-gov.us); and 8:09-cv-547-T23-TBM (Home Assure, LLC))
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