There’s an old saying: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.  It refers to the Trojan horse that the Greek army used to trick its way into Troy during the Trojan War.  It has come to refer to situations and people that hide fraud and trickery behind a friendly and perhaps even generous demeanor.

The hottest new business in California?  One guess….  Mortgage modification.  Everyone and their brother is now opening up “mortgage modification” companies.   They appear friendly and eager to “help you save your home,” but be careful.

For instance, one I recently heard about is American Home Mortgage Servicing Company.  This company is not licensed as a real estate broker by the California Department of Real Estate. (If you want to check whether the company that is pitching you to modify your mortgage is a licensed real estate broker, use the DRE license check tool here.) Therefore, it is not a licensed “mortgage broker” and is thus not legally licensed to modify mortgages.  It is not a law firm.  It is not a non-profit credit counselor.  In fact, a little research reveals that it is nothing but a debt collector.  An unlicensed debt collector phishing for people with financial difficulties, which it refer to as “customers.”  (For reasons unknown, California doesn’t require debt collectors to be licensed any more.  It does, however, require them to comply with the California Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.)

Do what I did.  Call their toll free number.  Once you get past the language preference, the first thing on the tape is:  “American Home Mortgage Servicing Company is a debt collector and may record and/or monitor calls.”  Then, follow the various links on their website as if you are looking to modify your mortgage. You will eventually wind up on a form that you need to fill out and return to them. Do not do this. This form is designed to solicit highly confidential financial information from you which will, in all likelihood, be used against you in the event that you default on your mortgage.

There is no need to provide this information at this stage of the conversation with anyone.  (I’m a bankruptcy attorney subject to very strict rules of confidentiality.  I usually have very good reasons to request this information from clients.  Yet I never solicit this level of detail from prospective clients until they are an actual client and I have a rational and business-related reason for collecting this information.)  How do I know this isn’t a bona fide form for dealing with a mortgage modification? Look at it.  It doesn’t even ask who your lender is.  How are they going to modify a loan or provide you with advice and an opinion on the criteria required to modify the loan if they don’t know who the lender is?  (Lenders’ criteria for modification are not uniform, and a loan that one lender may modify may not qualify under another lender’s program.)

Here’s the fact:  No one has authority to modify your mortgage except you and your mortgage lender.  Anyone who claims to be able to assist you in modifying your mortgage but doesn’t ask who holds that mortgage right out of the chute is probably up to something very different.  Fortunately, these people tell you: They are “debt collectors.”   I wouldn’t give them the name of my dog without a written disclosure of who they represent, what they are actually authorized to do and a written representation from them as to what exactly is going to be done with the information I provide them. I suspect that if you call them and make this demand as a precondition to your giving them any confidential financial information, they will hang up on you.

Who are these people?  Are they licensed? Are they supposed to be?  Who’s regulating these guys?

In short, no one. It’s the Wild Wild West.  The California Department of Real Estate is supposed be on it, but in practical reality, it looks more like substitute teacher day in 5th Grade, erasers flying, tongues wagging, the whole works.  And who can blame the CDRE?  They’re overwhelmed.  So it will fall on the consumer.  If you try to do this without counsel, make sure that the person you’re dealing with knows what she is doing and that you’re protected.

Here are the rules, at least regarding licensing:

First, in order to function as a “mortgage modification company” in California the company must first be licensed as a “real estate broker” by the California Department of Real Estate.  (California does not have a separate licensing category for “mortgage brokers” nor for “mortgage modifiers.”) Modifying a mortgage is essentially the functional equivalent of originating a mortgage, so the same licensing rules prevail.  (Here’s an interesting opportunity to get a fly-on-the-wall ear to brokers talking to each other about this topic.)

Next, in order to collect any fee in advance for “mortgage modification” services, the entity must be licensed by the DRE and must submit its contract for services for approval to the DRE.  So if someone tells you they’re a “mortgage modifier” and wants you to pay them for providing those services, first demand their DRE brokers’ license number and then check the DRE website to see if their contract has been approved yet by the DRE.  If it hasn’t, then tell them you’ll pay them if and when they get a result for you.

[Update:  Effective July 1, 2009, it is unlawful for a foreclosure consultant, as defined in Civil Code Section 2945.1 to engage in the foreclosure consultant business unless it has registered with the Attorney General’s Office at:  http://www.ag.ca.gov/register.php. All foreclosure consultants operating in California must post a $100,000 bond and register with Attorney General’s Office by July 1, 2009.  There is list of companies whose agreement has been approved. It’s very short. You can find it on this rather hard to find site called California Foreclosure Prevention Act.   There is also a list of companies that have not been approved by the Attorney General, although that strikes me as sort of foolish.  Given that scam artists work pretty hard to cut a low profile, its a bit like saying “raise your hand if you’re not here.”]

American Home Mortgage Servicing is not on that list.  American Home Mortgage Servicing is also not a licensed real estate broker in the State of California.  In fact, American Home Mortgage Servicing does not appear to be licensed to do anything more complicated than exist in the State of California.  And it’s a Delaware corporation so it’s not even domiciled here.  (Debt collectors no longer need to be licensed in California.)

(Here’s a link to the California Attorney General’s recent online posting about how to avoid being ripped off by foreclosure rescue scams.   And here’s another article/consumer warning by the DRE about scams offering to “cut your home payments in half.”)

There is a growing number of unscrupulous people out there right now looking to take advantage of people who are in financial extremis.  There are also tons of folks who, while maybe not slimeballs, are woefully unqualified to “modify” anything more complicated than a typo on a spelling test.

Current statistics suggest that only 5% of the people who attempt to modify their mortgages are actually succeeding right now, and of those? More than 50% re-default in the first 6 months!  I’m not going to blame all of that on slimeballs and idiots, but I can’t think of any argument that suggests that the presence of opportunistic and unscrupulous slimeballs and idiots posing as “mortgage modifiers” is helping matters.

But there are also a lot of good, qualified and experienced people who want to help, who charge a reasonable fee and who know what they’re doing.  (And I absolutely guarantee you that they don’t refer to themselves on their voicemail as “debt collectors.”) Some are mortgage brokers, some are attorneys, some are credit counselors.  None are debt collectors.   Look for non-profit credit counselors as a start.

I’m not suggesting that everyone who wants to investigate mortgage modification hire an attorney. But at least do a little homework and make sure the person or company you hire is qualified and licensed.  If they disclose that they are “debt collectors” run the other way.  Such people have nothing of value to offer you.

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