Op-Ed: Spot the Scammers, Save Your Home

Op-Ed Published OnThe Huffington Post

By Eric T. Schneiderman

Every day struggling New Yorkers who are behind on their mortgages—facing foreclosure, and desperate to keep their heads above water—are bombarded with TV and radio ads promising lower interest rates or a reduction in their mortgage principal if they “call now!” Too many New Yorkers who make that call end up even deeper in debt—victimized by a mortgage rescue scam instead of getting the help they need.

Since I took office as Attorney General almost four years ago, I have made it a top priority to help New York families hurt by the crash of the housing market in 2008 to avoid foreclosure and get back on their feet. We have been able to provide housing counseling, legal assistance, and even small loans for thousands of New York families—all paid for by the banks whose misconduct caused the crash. As a result, New Yorkers have gotten more than $2 billion in mortgage principle write-downs, lower interest rates, and other relief—real help to keep families in their homes.

This week, we launch an innovative new way for New Yorkers to get help to identify and avoid mortgage rescue scams. It’s a web based app: AGScamHelp.com. Easily accessible from smartphones, tablets and other devices, AGScamHelp allows users to quickly search the name of any organization offering mortgage modification assistance.

The app will show that an organization is “Trusted” if it is part of the Attorney General’s Homeowner Protection Program, or has been approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Searching an organization that has not been approved by HUD or my office will produce a “Caution!” message advising that the group is not government-vetted.  It will also warn consumers of some of the hallmarks of mortgage rescue scams, including guaranteeing a positive result, asking for an upfront fee or telling a homeowner to stop paying your mortgage and pay them instead.

The app also includes an interactive map to help consumers find their nearest trusted housing counselor or legal services organization closest to them, tips on avoiding scams, and an easy-to-use tool to report potential scammers to my office, so that we can investigate.

My office recently secured a judgment against a network of Long Island- and Florida-based companies that were found to be preying on vulnerable families. They were ordered to pay $2.5 million in penalties and costs, provide full restitution to their victims, and cease their illegal conduct. We have other cases ongoing, and with the help of tips from consumers using the app, we can stop many more scammers.

With the AGScamHelp app, we can make New York the safest state to avoid mortgage rescue scams, and the easiest state to access free foreclosure prevention help from trusted sources. But we have to make sure we get this message out to vulnerable homeowners before the hucksters do. That’s why we will be mailing out tens of thousands of postcards on an ongoing basis to every household that receives a 90-day foreclosure notice letting them know how to avoid getting conned, and how to get real help.

My office has committed $100 million over five years to fund a network of roughly 90 housing counseling and legal services agencies in every region of New York State through the Homeowner Protection Program. In just over two years, the HOPP network has provided free, high quality housing counseling and legal services to roughly 35,000 families statewide. More than 11,000 families already have mortgage modifications pending or approved.

New Yorkers who were hurt by the crash of the housing bubble of 2008 still need someone on their side. Whether it’s taking on the big banks that caused the crisis, or cracking down on scammers that are still preying on the victims of the crash, we are committed to working creatively and aggressively until every New York community that was knocked down by the foreclosure crisis is back on its feet and thriving.