As many Americans sank deeper into financial trouble last year, a record number reported that they fell victim to schemes seeking to profit from their misfortune, according to a federal report released Wednesday.
Complaints data collected by the Federal Trade Commission from several U.S. law enforcement agencies show that distressed homeowners became particularly vulnerable to fraudulent practices by individuals or companies promising financial "rescue." Companies that, for instance, offer mortgage modifications or foreclosure relief programs generated nearly 8,000 complaints in 2009. Only one such complaint was officially recorded in 2008. The numbers are an indication of a much larger problem, since only a fraction of victims file formal complaints.
"These people are desperate and are unfortunately the perfect target for a scammer who has no conscience and is trying to take the last dollar out of these people's wallets," said David Vladeck, the FTC's director of consumer protection .
The FTC collected more than 1.3 million complaints of all kinds last year, up from 1.2 million in 2008. Consumers reported losing more than $1.7 billion from fraud and various other schemes, with the largest concentration of complaints coming from Nevada and Colorado.
The complaints were not limited to mortgage swindles. This year, the most commonly reported problem was identity theft.
David Vladeck's warning to foreclosure rescue scammers: "I want to send you to jail."
But as people increasingly lost their jobs and fell behind on mortgage payments last year, some of the most striking spikes in complaints related to credit schemes. Between 2008 and 2009, complaints about companies that offer advance-fee loans and promise to repair bad credit more than doubled to 41,448. "Debt management" and "credit counseling" complaints also doubled.
The FTC, the U.S. Justice Department and state attorneys general have accused--and are prosecuting--dozens of companies for fraudulently using the recession to victimize consumers.
Now the FTC is paying particular attention to mortgage schemes. The sudden leap in consumer complaints is in part attributable to hundreds of "rescue" companies that launched last year after the Obama administration created a government-subsidized loan modification program.
Logistical problems have plagued the administration's Home Affordable Modification Program, which has produced only 116,000 permanent mortgage modifications. In turn, many homeowners have turned to fly-by-night companies for help, analysts say.
"Fundamentally they're a product of a broken system," said Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. "As long as people are desperate to save their homes, and don't have a good alternative, these guys are going to find a way to cheat them."
Although some businesses offer legitimate loan modification services, the FTC has proposed a new rule that would prohibit companies from charging consumers up-front fees, a move that will probably "drive a lot of these scammers out of this business," Vladeck said. The agency, which can bring civil but not criminal court cases, has identified about 500 companies that currently charge advance fees.
Through its "Operation Loan Lies," the agency has sued about 30 companies accused of operating bogus loan modification or foreclosure rescue businesses.
Ultimately, Vladeck hopes these cases will encourage the Justice Department to pursue criminal charges against mortgage schemers.
"I want to shut you down," Vladeck said of the schemers. "I want to take every penny you have and I want to send you to jail."