Scammers posing as government-linked refinancing programs
DOVER - The person on the other end of the phone had all the right lingo, and promised Anthony Curatolo that he was pre-approved to refinance with a government-backed mortgage. The new loan would save him hundreds of dollars a month. "They said they were authorized to give out 2 percent loans because the government was given stimulus money for them to do that with," Curatolo said. "They give you a name like they're a mortgage company, and they're not." Curatolo, very close to falling behind on his payments, jumped at the chance. But there was a catch: First he had to make two payments totaling $1,000.He did. Then the company disconnected its phone number. Curatolo didn't know it, but the company had pulled a disappearing act before. There are pages of online complaints from consumers across the country detailing the same story. Federal authorities and local consumer advocates say this scenario is the latest twist on a scam to trick desperate homeowners into forking over cash. The scammers collect lists of homeowners who are in default on their mortgages or in foreclosure. They often say they are "authorized by the government" to provide a low-interest loan. They require money upfront, then do nothing to help the homeowner. When someone falls for the phony pitch, they're likely to be hit by other scam artists. That's because they land on a "sucker's list," as it's called by Kevin Jackson of Hillsborough County Protection Services. Once you get on it, it's hard to get off," Jackson said. "Once you fall for it, the scammers figure you'll fall for it again. And they sell those lists." That's what happened to Curatolo. A few weeks after his money disappeared, he received a phone call from the same customer service representative. But this time, this man had a different company name. "I said, 'Aren't you the same person I've already talked to?' The phone went click," Curatolo said. "He recognized my voice, I think." Refinance scams are popular, Jackson said, and the crooks are former mortgage professionals who know how to make it all sound legitimate. Sometimes they even invoke the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "They like to use some of the names and acronyms out there that you'll see on HUD, trying to make it look like they're connected to those programs," he said. The number Curatolo used is registered to a company in California called Certified Processing. The number is disconnected, and so are all the other numbers connected to the company. The Better Business Bureau in Los Angeles has given Certified Processing an F rating. The website for the bureau cites complaints about loan modification promises that customers say the company did not keep. In addition, the state attorney general in Maine filed a cease and desist order in January against the company. The order says the company did not comply with state requirements and prohibits it from soliciting customers in the state. The Florida Attorney General's Office said there is no active investigation into Certified Processing in Florida. Jackson said consumers should check out any company selling mortgage help. For one thing, it's against Florida law to charge up-front fees to help with a refinance or loan modification. A few other things to be on the lookout for: Companies that tell you to stop talking to your lender or to stop paying your mortgage. Some companies even tell you to send your mortgage payment to them instead. As for Curtatolo, he learned his lesson the hard way. But his phone keeps ringing.