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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - Ana Hay, who works two jobs seven days a week to cover her $1,700-a-month mortgage on her Malden home and put her son through the University of Massachusetts, got a call out of the blue a little over a year ago that sounded, at first, promising.
"This law group from California called me and told me they were going to work with me to get a loan modification" to make it easier for her to afford her home loan, Hay recalled. But there were two, she now knows with the benefit of hindsight, troubling catches: "I had to give them half the money that they were going to require to do the loan modification – about $3,500, $3,600 – give them half of it, and they also wanted me to default on my mortgage so that it'd look better when they do the modification itself."
She complied with their advice for a month, but then got a bad feeling and called her mortgage lender. "They hadn't heard from this law firm. They hadn't heard from anybody, and I was starting to fall behind. So i started to panic," Hay recalled. "I kept calling them. They kept switching me to different lawyers … Every time I called them, they kept telling me: 'Don't worry about it. We want you to fall at least six months behind, and it will make you look better'" in terms of needing debt relief, "and they'll give you the modification."
Finally, she recalled, "A friend of mine said to me: Call the attorney general's office, call the Better Business Bureau, call anyone that would listen to you and try to help you out … I was afraid to find out the truth, that they really stole my money. I started to look it up on the Internet" and discovered it was a rampant scam that had targeted hundreds, probably thousands of consumers. "Each of them had the exact same situation: Give them the money up front, they'll work it out, and they never call the mortgage companies or anything."
Especially worrisome, the purported mortgage helpers now had "my social security number, my address, everything, my financial information, my taxes" needed to steal her identity.
Wednesday, Ana spoke at an annual presentation by state and federal consumer-protection officials about the most common scams and most frequent complaints from consumers in the past year –- and mortgage modification swindles were on the top of many lists.
Stephanie Kahn, chief of the consumer protection bureau in the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, said what Ana got taken in by is a classic example of the top rule for not being scammed: "Always be cautious when you receive help when it's unsolicited," Kahn said. "If somebody calls you and is promising you or guaranteeing results, whether it's a loan modification, whether they're going to be able to cut your credit card bills in half, take a deep breath."
Besides the AG’s office and Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, officials from the Better Business Bureau, U.S. Postal Inspectors, and Federal Trade Commission all contributed Top Five lists of what they’re focusing on.
Some of the most common issues besides loan modification: Illegal and harassing debt collection, home contractors and for- profit schools that don't deliver, and unsolicited help signing up for Obamacare, investment opportunities or foreign sweepstakes winnings that turns out to be fake. Those last three all epitomize something Ana Hay said she’s learned.
"Never again. I keep telling people all the time, do not send any money to anybody," Hay said. "Just because they call you doesn't mean that it's true."
With videographer Dan Smith and video editor Lauren Kleciak