Swindlers find growing market in foreclosures

As home values across the country continue to plummet, the authorities say a new breed of swindler is preying on the tens of thousands of homeowners desperate to avoid foreclosure.
Until recently, defrauders tried to bilk homeowners out of the equity in their homes. Now, with that equity often dried up, they are presenting themselves as "foreclosure rescue companies" that charge upfront fees to modify loans but often do nothing to stave off foreclosure.  The Federal Trade Commission brought lawsuits last year against five companies representing 20,000 customers, and state and local prosecutors have brought dozens more. In Florida, Attorney General Bill McCollum recently sued a company that he said had more than 600 victims.
 
 "There's no way for the consumer to sort out the legitimate companies," said Mr. McCollum, who added that he had limited resources to fight what he called "a sheer volume question."
The companies under suspicion typically charge an upfront fee of up to $3,000 to help borrowers get lower rates on their mortgages from their lenders. But borrowers often cannot afford the fees, the service can be bogus and, in the worst cases, the homeowners lose their chance to renegotiate with their bank or to file for bankruptcy protection because of the time wasted. There are companies that provide legitimate foreclosure services, but the industry is largely unregulated, making it difficult for homeowners to separate the good from the bad. Some of the fraudulent companies - often run by former real estate agents or mortgage brokers - are local; others are national. Many have official-looking Web sites that suggest that the companies have government affiliations and give homeowners a false sense of security.

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