Editor's note: This is the second part of a series examining the government's "Making Home Affordable" program and the struggles of homeowners seeking a mortgage-rate modification. Check back Friday for the third installment.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- While banks and regulators have frittered away precious time, others have sensed opportunity in the rubble of the housing market.
Call them savvy entrepreneurs or shady wheelers-and-dealers, but small mortgage-workout shops have sprouted up across the country like wildfire, promising to deliver results in a speedy fashion. They often have names that evoke a mix of strength, expertise and patriotism: Amerisave Mortgage Corp., Bank Modification Experts, American Home Relief, US Loan Relief or, simply, ObamaHousingPlan.net.
It's difficult for the average consumer to tell which companies are legitimate. The firms tend to use marketing lingo that paints them as helpful, non-profit consumer agencies, or associates them with the president's housing program.
For example, www.2009obamahomereliefplan.com is decked out in red, white and blue, with a video of President Obama at the top of the site. In a press release with a Washington dateline it promotes "Refinements to Existing Administration Programs Designed to Help Unemployed, Underwater Borrowers While Helping Administration Meet its Goals." It offers "drastic rate reductions," "elimination of fees and penalties" and the ability to "stop foreclosures immediately" through a 24-hour hotline.
Yet the site isn't directly associated with the federal government or its housing programs. Nor does it actually modify mortgages or stop foreclosures. It also presents inaccurate information, telling visitors that only first mortgages are eligible, when the administration has been prodding banks to participate in the second-lien workout program as well.
See our interactive map of foreclosures by state.
Efforts to contact 2009 Obama Home Relief Plan directly were unsuccessful. Charles Favor, a representative of a company reached through a phone number featured on the site, explained that it acts as a "lead-generator" to steer visitors to other third-party specialists like himself. Those specialists coach homeowners on presenting information in the most beneficial way to get a workout.
"Some of these people are inept at preparing their financial information," says Favor, who identified himself as manager of HLP Center. "We're for people who have been getting the run-around by their lender."
Favor explained that his group charges a fee of "a couple hundred dollars" to help customers pass two key tests to qualify for modifications subsidized by the federal government. One is a "waterfall" test, or a ratio of mortgage payments to gross income that must top 31% to qualify for federal assistance. The other is a "net present value" test, which needs to prove that a bank will receive more cash flow from a mortgage that has been modified than one that hasn't.
"It's either you pass or you don't," explains Favor. "We do it simple here; we try to do it as cost effective as possible, but anybody who tells you they're going to negotiate or settle your debt with your lender, you have to be leery of."
Some types of "specialists" can be nefarious. They use dicey tactics to generate business, offer carefully-worded promises that are rarely delivered upon and require up-front modification fees that are illegal in certain states.
Recent scams highlighted by state and federal governments have targeted the elderly, naïve and poorly educated in the most troubled housing markets of the country. Some have appealed to immigrants who have trouble negotiating with banks because English isn't their primary language or they're intimidated by unfamiliar culture.
For instance, the Justice Department charged Yolette Antoine and Constance Powell with a "mortgage-fraud scheme" in June. The pair was allegedly involved in a ruse that promised immigration and home-loan assistance to members of Miami's Haitian-American community, then stole their identities to obtain $4.4 million in fraudulent mortgage loans. Court records indicate they pleaded not guilty at an arraignment on June 18.
Marisol Perez faces felony charges in Las Vegas, Nev., for promising to reduce mortgage payments within three months' time through her company We Save Your Home LLC. In an indictment last month, the attorney general's office said Perez charged homeowners $1,350 to $2,000 for her services but "failed to do any work on behalf of her customers" and refused to refund their money. Perez has been arrested and arraigned but has not yet entered a plea; her trial date is set for Sept. 20.
The U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California accused Gerald Guidry and Jeff McGrue of fraudulently promising to prevent foreclosure in exchange for fees and a title transfer. The two were arrested as part of a government sweep called "Operation Loan Lies" last year. Guidry pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making false statements in May and will be sentenced next month. McGrue pleaded not guilty; his trial is on hold pending a psychiatric evaluation.
Though actions have been taken at the local, state and federal level, it can be difficult for the average consumer to figure out just where to take a complaint. The main federal housing agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, has had a mortgage-fraud site "under construction" for over a year while the Postal Service remains one of the most prominent prosecutors of illegal scams.
"You have to understand, with mortgage fraud, there are so many different agencies that prosecute," says Stephen Kodak, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "I've seen Postal Service mortgage fraud cases; I've seen numerous Secret Service mortgage fraud cases. I guess it all depends on who picks it up first."
The most high-profile sweep was the FBI's "Operation Stolen Dream," whose preliminary findings were announced in June. The initiative resulted in hundreds of arrests and convictions related to 1,215 criminal defendants who allegedly swindled $2 billion through mortgage-related schemes.
Yet the feds have only been able to recoup $150 million for victims of such crimes. The most prominent cases related to home-flippers and builders who targeted banks by artificially jacking up prices -- not the new breed of ambulance-chasers running after desperate homeowners.
"Whether it's going to be on a federal level all depends on the threshold of money lost," says Kodak.
-- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York.