Low bar: How lawyers profit off desperate homeowners – Center for Public Integrity

In 2012, after a heart attack left him too ill to work and unable to make his mortgage payments on time, John M. Green turned to the Litvin Law Firm for help.

Green said he paid the firm some $8,000 over the next two years to negotiate better terms with the lender on his house in Baker, Louisiana. But he lost the home anyway, he says, because the Brooklyn, New York, law firm did little beyond taking his money.

“My experience was horrible,” said Green, 72, who is back at work part-time as a school teacher. “They didn’t follow through with anything they said they were going to do.”

It’s not just former Litvin clients like Green who are aggrieved. The attorneys general of New York and Maryland have accused the firm of preying on distressed homeowners by failing to deliver the legal firepower it promised.

People deeply in arrears on their mortgages wasted money they could ill afford to lose, while dozens lost their homes, Maryland officials charged. The case, filed in 2014, targets the firm and its founder, attorney Gennady Litvin. Both state proceedings are pending.

Litvin would not comment.

Since 2010, tens of thousands of strapped homeowners have alleged they were cheated by lawyers or marketers boasting ties to law firms, whom they trusted to renegotiate mortgage loans or stave off foreclosure actions, a Center for Public Integrity investigation found.

Since 2010, a coalition of consumer and law enforcement groups organized by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has tracked companies and law firms that promise to “rescue” homeowners from foreclosure and mostly fail to deliver. The group has collected more than 46,000 written complaints from homeowners whose losses totaled more than $100 million — nearly two-thirds linked to apparent misconduct by lawyers or their associates.

Minorities accounted for just over half the complaints, and they tended to lose more money than whites. Hispanics lost the most, more than $4,200 on average.

“They take $3,000 from someone who only has that much, not from a population with a lot of wealth,” said Michael Tanglis, of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Tanglis analyzed the complaint data at the request of the Center for Public Integrity.

Many victims haven’t recovered much, if any, of their money. The Federal Trade Commission, which has the duty to protect consumers, and the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which oversees lenders and financial companies, have won more than $341 million in civil judgments against foreclosure rescue outlets including law firms since 2009. But the agencies have actually collected less than 5 percent of that amount, court records show.

The sheer number of attorneys who have engaged in dubious foreclosure enterprises — the Center’s research identified more than 1,000 nationwide — also has vexed state bar associations and courts that both license lawyers and run funds to compensate their victims. Bar groups say the schemes are clearly illegal, yet attorneys who help orchestrate them mostly escape serious discipline, while victims often aren’t compensated, the Center found.

Brooklyn attorney Litvin and his firm, for instance, both filed for bankruptcy protection last year to get out from under debts. They listed more than 4,800 potential creditors — many ex-clients.

Carlos Gardea, a driving instructor who lives in El Paso, Texas, is on the list. When he agreed in 2012 to pay a $1,700 upfront fee and $595 a month to cut his mortgage payment, he considered it a good deal. A paralegal emailed him requesting documents, but each time he phoned the firm asking about progress on his case, all he got was a brush-off, he said in a court filing.

Gardea told the Center he eventually saved his home from foreclosure with the help of a local attorney. He feels the Litvin firm deceived him.

“I just hope to see some kind of money in my mailbox one of these days,” Gardea said. “I did pay a lot. It is pretty unfair.”

Meanwhile, new scams on foreclosure rescue are playing out in some communities, particularly ones with hot real-estate markets. Vulnerable homeowners, often minorities and immigrants, say they have been tricked into signing over their property deeds to scammers who used illegal or unethical pressure tactics to gain their trust.

Having a lawyer at the table in these deals adds “a veneer of authenticity,” said Jenny Eisenberg, a Brooklyn, New York, legal-aid attorney.

False Fix

More than $7 trillion in wealth vanished when the nation’s housing bubble burst nearly a decade ago, devastating many working-class homeowners. In 2008, more than 3 million homes were foreclosed on nationwide as real estate prices tanked and millions of people lost their jobs.

A year later, federal officials rolled out the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, hoping to keep millions of others from being forced from their homes. The voluntary program called on lenders to cut mortgage interest rates or loan balances through a negotiation process called “loan modification.”

How much HAMP has helped overextended homeowners is debatable. Of the 5.7 million households that applied for loan modifications between December 2009 and April 2015, nearly three-quarters were turned down, according to the report of a special inspector general reviewing the program.

Andrew G. Pizor, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, which advocates for low-income and disadvantaged people, said mortgage servicers have done a “horrible job,” often losing paperwork or slow-walking loan modifications.

“People were strung along for months, then told to start from scratch,” Pizor said.

The high rate of HAMP rejections played into the hands of entrepreneurs willing to falsely guarantee they could cut through red tape and renegotiate mortgage loans. And as homeowners grew more desperate to keep a roof over their heads, many were easy prey — and some still are.

Court records show that telemarketers, often denizens of boiler-room alleys in California or Florida, so named for their high-pressure sales tactics, have relied on direct mail, websites, and radio and television ads to pitch broadly worded foreclosure protection services by attorneys. Many charged homeowners a monthly fee of up to $700.

In one ad entered into evidence as part of an FTC lawsuit against the Danielson Law Group, a male announcer intones: “Attention homeowners. The government has increased pressure on lenders to prevent foreclosures. If you’re one of the millions behind on their payments, struggling to stay afloat and in danger of losing your home, call … for your free professional consultation.”

Some marketers have advised homeowners to quit making monthly mortgage payments while they worked on renegotiating their loans, which is bad legal advice, authorities said.

Others have persuaded property owners that their mortgage debt would be forgiven because of past misdeeds by their lenders, an unlikely scenario.

In another enforcement action, the FTC cited an advertisement hawking attorney services with the headline, all in capital letters: “DON’T LOSE YOUR HOME.”

“Attorneys have been successful in proving fraud and predatory lending practices which has caused some borrowers’ mortgage to be dismissed in court,” reads the ad. “Most of the mortgages done over the last decade have some kind of violation and only an expert can reveal the proverbial needle in the haystack.”

Some have strongly implied or falsely claimed to be affiliated with the U.S. government, court cases show. Others mailed homeowners official looking “Loan Modification” notices. “Based on your mortgage lender information and your property profile provided to us you may be qualified for loan modification,” reads one. The notice warns: YOU MAY FORFEIT LEGAL RIGHTS IF YOU DO NOT TAKE PROMPT ACTION. WE CAN HELP SAVE YOUR HOME.”

There’s no way to know how many people who paid these firms might have been able to secure a home loan modification by negotiating directly with their lenders. It’s also likely that some people who answered one of these ads had not made mortgage payments for months or were so deeply underwater financially that they had little hope of keeping their homes. But state and federal lawsuits filed against foreclosure law firms and their marketing arms typically cite examples of homeowners who not only paid thousands of dollars needlessly, but also lost their property because they trusted the firms to guide them through the process.

Citing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to scams, in 2010 the FTC issued the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services, or MARS, Rule to stop the practice. The rule barred companies from taking advance fees for foreclosure relief, which the government viewed as the primary trap for homeowners.

But when writing the rule, federal officials agreed with the American Bar Association and some state bar groups that lawyers should be exempted under certain conditions. Several legal groups argued lawyers would shun foreclosure work unless they were paid up front. The FTC decided to allow lawyers to collect advance fees so long as they kept the money in a client trust account and met other conditions, which have proven difficult for authorities to monitor.

Some states that passed laws to prevent scammers from collecting hefty fees up front also left a significant loophole for attorneys.

Today, it’s clear the exemptions helped encourage rip-off artists to partner with law firms, or at least to give customers the impression they were affiliated with attorneys.

“We anticipated people would get scammed, but not to the level that actually happened,” said Rutledge Simmons, a lawyer and senior vice-president at NeighborWorks America, a housing advocacy group.

California Scheming

In early 2009, state bar associations in California and Florida warned members to steer clear of mortgage-modification deals in which they split fees with non-lawyers, or accepted referrals from telemarketers or other salespeople.

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