Claretta Taylor, 68, refinanced her Baltimore home in 2003 in the hopes of launching a dream — a catering business. Today she lives a nightmare after a scam left her without her home. She is one of thousands of Marylanders swindled every year.
"This didn't happen to me because I wasn't paying attention," said Taylor, whose catering business didn't get off the ground. "This happened to me because I was vulnerable."
After retiring as a medical transcriptionist, she fell behind on her mortgage payments in 2006 and sought help, but in the wrong place. The loan modification firm Taylor saw advertised on television persuaded her to stop paying her mortgage and stole her money instead of helping her stay in her home as promised.
The company was prosecuted, but Taylor didn't get her house back.
A video, Stealing Trust, documents how Taylor and others were duped. The Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition (MCRC), which sponsored the video, is distributing it to consumer groups, lawmakers and regulators.
AARP Maryland will show the film to some of its chapters and cosponsor other screenings with MCRC.
"Right now, we're concerned about foreclosure scams," said Hank Greenberg, AARP Maryland state director.
Marylanders filed nearly 600 mortgage complaints in 2010 with the state Office of the Commissioner of Financial Regulation, which oversees financial institutions and consumer lending. The Maryland Office of the Attorney General, which prosecutes a wider range of fraud, received roughly 7,100 fraud-related complaints in the first nine months of this year.
"Scams are always prevalent and even more so when the economy is tight and people may be more willing to take a chance," said Karen Straughn, assistant attorney general in the office's Consumer Protection Division.
Older people tend to be targeted, Greenberg said, because they are "more trusting."
"In loan modification cases, we seem to be the last place [consumers] call instead of the first place," said Cynthia H. Jones, an assistant commissioner in the Maryland Office of the Commissioner of Financial Regulation. Residents can call the office to vet foreclosure and loan modification firms.
'I lost everything'
"In desperation to hold on to my home and hold on to my car, I put my trust in [the company]," Taylor said about her ordeal. The man who ran the scam promised Taylor she could stop paying her mortgage for a year and keep her home. Instead, she said, "I lost everything."
"Trust but verify," Marceline White, MCRC executive director, advises consumers. To avoid being swindled, consumer fraud experts recommend:
- Don't sign anything immediately.
- Don't give your credit card information over the phone unless you initiated the call and have checked that the firm is legitimate.
- Register online with the national Do Not Call list to block telephone solicitations.
- Place a temporary freeze on your credit report to prevent identity thieves from stealing your Social Security number. It can be "unfrozen" when you apply for credit.
- Consider aggressive or high-pressured sales pitches a red flag.
- Never pay upfront fees.
- Don't stop paying your mortgage.
- Read "A Consumer Guide for Seniors" on the Maryland Attorney General's website. For a printed copy, call 1-888-743-0023 toll-free.
- Visit the Maryland HOPE Initiative website to find legitimate counselors on housing and foreclosure issues, and visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website for help with consumer debt issues.
- To keep up with the latest scams, check out the Scams and Fraud page on the AARP website.
A clip from Stealing Trust is available on YouTube. To arrange a screening of Stealing Trust, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You may also like: AARP Fraud Fighter call center. >>
Christopher J. Gearon is a writer living in Derwood, Md.