She Fell For The Informercial

Melinda Tuhus PhotoPatricia Hinds had lots to celebrate on Thursday as Neighborhood Housing Services launched a loan modification scam alert campaign at its homeownership center on Sherman Avenue. She had just gotten official notice that her home is no longer in foreclosure.

“I got my house back,” she beamed.

Hinds (pictured) and another couple went public with their story to help prevent other homeowners from falling into the same trap they did. They got out of the trap with assistance from NHS.

Last year Hinds found herself dealing with a multitude of family crises at once and fell behind in her mortgage payments.

“What happened? I fell for the scam, big time,” she said. “I was duped [by an] infomercial I saw on the television—after listening to it, it sounded too good to be true. I guess it was.”

She signed up for a new home loan that would supposedly help refinance and pay off debt. Instead her debts piled up beyond her ability to pay back, and she fell into foreclosure.

Anti-scam experts point out three red flags to watch for: scammers demanding money up front; promising homeowners they’ll get their loan modified; and telling homeowners to stop paying the mortgage and start paying them instead.

Hinds fell for most of it. She paid $4,000, and she stopped paying her mortgage. Last September she received the foreclosure notice.

She went to court and got a 60-day extension and was referred to an on-site counselor. That person wasn’t helpful herself, but she did refer her to NHS, a New Haven-based not-for-profit that rebuilds homes for working families and counsels homeowners in trouble.

Hinds said her NHS counselor “worked tirelessly. She went above and beyond. She went to the top”—pleading her case to bank and federal housing officials. It worked.

Just this week Hinds, who lives in West Haven, received a letter (pictured) saying her home is no longer in foreclosure.

Lourdes and Orlen Castillo got behind in their mortgage payments when Orlen lost his job in 2007 and was out of work for a year. Lourdes said a friend in New York told her about a company that could help them out of the jam they were in; she was using the company herself.

“Our payments were high, so I was looking for a modification,” Lourdes explained in Spanish. They forked over $3,500 up front. Then the company told them to stop paying their mortgage. When they got notice of foreclosure, a lawyer for the company was supposed to represent them in court, “but he never went to court,” she said. “They told us we’d just have to wait for our eviction order. We were desperate; we fell into depression. Then one morning I saw a scam alert on TV.”

She called the toll-free number and was referred to NHS. The person who appeared to go “over and above” in their case was Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal himself. “He helped me,” Castillo said. “He did practically everything with the bank” on their behalf, she said. In February of this year, they got back the title to their East Haven home.

The new building for NHS’s homeownership center (a gut-rehabbed house that’s part of NHS’s ever-expanding campus on Sherman near the corner of Whalley Avenue) will provide separate offices where counselors can work with individual homeowners. NHS Exective Director Jim Paley (pictured schmoozing with NHS board member Elaine Braffman) said he realized the need for it when he observed three counselors sitting around the same desk each counseling people, and one man burst into tears.

Representatives of banks and of state and federal housing agencies joined NHS staffers in the celebratory program Thursday, which was preceded by a full dinner served under a tent. (That covering was much needed when a downpour struck as the event began, but later the sun came out, which at least one speaker took to be an omen of better days to come.)

Bob Kantor, director of Fannie Mae for Connecticut, said awareness mortgage scamming is critical. But beyond that, he added, “We have to prosecute these folks.  And the only way we’re going to be able to prosecute these folks is if people like you in the communities who know people or if you yourself have been scammed, report it.”

Clean-up speaker was Milton Sharp, a senior homeownership specialist with NeighborWorks America (which counts 230 local groups among its members, including NHS).

Sharp said nationally the foreclosure rate is 8.85 percent, and the groups most affected are seniors, and African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos. He urged his audience to spread the word about how to report scamming: by calling 888.995.HOPE or by visiting this website. He praised the work of NHS, adding it’s the only local group he’s visited that has a campus—of three buildings—rather than just an office. (Click here and here for previous stories.)

Then it was time for the ribbon-cutting to inaugurate the homeowner center. Sharp did the honors with the scissors.

As guests toured the building, they found Bridgette Russell, managing director of the center, sitting in her new office.

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posted by: Neighbor on June 11, 2010  12:45pm

Thank you, NHS, for all that you do!  In these difficult times, there will always be scams that prey on desperate people and it’s so important that our community has advocates like you!

posted by: Phoenix Press Rep on June 11, 2010  2:44pm

Neighborhood Housing Services is an amazing organization! They helped me when I was buying a house by providing a first-time-homebuyers’ class, helping me set up a $5000 account (that I made deposits into) which they would match 100% (for a total of $5000) which goes towards home renovations, and numerous classes such as sheetrocking, home repair, etc.

A terrific organization, and great neighbor!

posted by: asd on June 11, 2010  6:02pm

Why not call your old mortgage company to make sure they were getting the payments? Why does anyone trust things on the television!? The television LIES all the time.

posted by: Elaine Braffman on June 11, 2010  11:42pm

So many years of such hard work Jim and the rest of your staff. I have been involved in NHS in one form or another and happy to be part of their mission now and in the past and looking forward to many more years of sharing, trying to help productively and just simply proud of the success stories through the years.
Jim, we go back so many years and still I am amazed at the work that is done by NHS and the differences NHS has made in various neighborhoods. Keep fighting the good fight Jim!

posted by: Walt on June 12, 2010  7:01am

The feds or the State should check on those re-financing ads which open with Obama orating about helping those in financial trouble.

Automatically considered likely scam deals,  as I see it.  but apparently Obama-lovers are often persuaded to contact those slimy firms because they think falsely that Obama and the feds back the company which is advertising.

Should be illegal, and Obama (who probably does not even know the ads using his name exist) and the FTC should be acting against those crooked firms.