Scams victimize S.C. residents desperate to save homes

Dora Pierce couldn't afford the monthly payments on her Chapin home but dreaded admitting that to her mortgage company.

She was afraid to ask her lender for a break, not knowing the financial lingo and thinking it would probably take hours to reach the right representative on the phone.

So when a company from California offered to negotiate lower payments on her behalf, she agreed and felt instantly relieved.

The service cost $1,500. Without that kind of money handy, Pierce, 61, began saving up, cutting out her cholesterol and anti-stroke medications to be able to make the payment.

Dozens of private companies that offer mortgage help have sprung up during the economic slowdown, targeting desperate homeowners who face foreclosure after losing a job or earning less income.

Though their offers might sound tempting, some of these companies are operating illegally in South Carolina, which has one of the strictest licensing requirements for credit counseling groups in the country.

And most consumers don't know that lenders often refuse to work with these private third-party negotiators. Instead, most lenders prefer that their homeowners turn to a group that's certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which typically means their services are free.

"If you had the money, that (amount) could have been two or three mortgage payments," said Debbie Kidd, who oversees foreclosure counseling for the nonprofit Family Services in North Charleston. "Why are you instead paying it to a third party?"

South Carolina has tough licensing requirements in place for groups that offer credit counseling services, said Carri Grube Lybarker, staff attorney with the state's Department of Consumer Affairs.

To get a license, an organization needs to submit financial statements and has to be bonded for at least $25,000. Employees need to pass criminal background and credit checks.

Only 38 groups have a South Carolina credit counseling license, and many charge no money because they operate on federal grants. At the most, a company can charge $50 upfront for a consultation.

The state's consumer affairs agency has taken in a greater number of complaints since the recession began. About 30 noncompliant mortgage help companies have been reported to the agency.

"A lot of these companies are just recycled mortgage lenders who got most of these people in this situation in the first place," Kidd said. "What the lenders find is because they're not a HUD-certified counseling agency, they're finding they create fraud all over again by knowing what the lender wants and falsifying paperwork."

Major lenders, including Wells Fargo - the largest bank in the state - have told Family Services counselors that they won't lower payments for homeowners represented by a third party, for-profit company.

But some companies still prey on homeowners desperate to save their homes but feel helpless when confronting their lenders.

"Just like buying a home is a complicated process, it's a complicated process to have a loan restructured as well," Grube Lybarker said. "There's usually a lot of paperwork involved, and people are often put off by their lender or any creditor for that matter."

For Dora Pierce, the relief she felt after hiring the California company was short-lived.

During the first few months, she could call and check on her loan modification request's progress. And she was encouraged to read about other homeowners who got lower payments through President Obama's $75 billion loan modification program.

But in early July, correspondence with the company stopped.

The company's voice-mail box was full, and another number was constantly busy. She called at 4 a.m. once just to double-check.

She later found out later that the company never contacted her lender.

"It's just one of the worst feelings I've ever had," said Pierce, who is now working with Family Services and waiting to hear about her loan modification. "I was scammed."

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