Foreclosure Scams Up as 'Piranhas' Circle

But the man who admits he accepted Struthers' check, Chris Campbell of the company Lionstar LLP, insisted he is not a scammer. Rather, he said he believes he may have been scammed by a subcontractor to which he passed along the money, which in turn was supposed to deal with Wachovia.

He said he went into a deep depression after believing he'd lost his clients' money, and that's why he did not answer their calls.

But he claimed he is working to find a way to refund Struthers' and Howard's money.

"I think they deserve their money back and I will try to make it up to them," Campbell said. "I'm not a con artist. I'm just a former mortgage guy. I tried to find an alternative for them. It backfired on me."

Three Basic Scams

The FBI has identified three basic scams.

In "phantom help," supposed mortgage rescuers make off with cash meant to rework a mortgage.

The "bailout scam" entails homeowners surrendering a house title to a con artist on the promise that they can stay on as renters and, once the mortgage fees are "fixed," repurchase their home.

In the "bait and switch," scammers dupe homeowners into signing what they think is a new loan but, in truth, are forged documents ceding their house to the crooks.

"It's pandemic" said Steve Dibert, president of MFI-Miami, a firm that conducts forensic mortgage audits and fraud investigations.

Dibert estimated that up to 250,000 people have been scammed. The FBI did not confirm those numbers but noted that the numbers of scams and scam artists is booming.

According to the attorney general's offices in states like California and Florida, the fraudsters operate all over the country. At least one firm being sued by California, First Gov, is based in Mexico, according to court papers.

To avoid being scammed, the Consumer Warning Network advises consumers to avoid paying for services up front.

The FBI's Orsmby warns "an attorney or someone from the banking community who is willing to look over the material must be present, because the amount of money at stake, should this turn into a scam, is huge for the potential victim."

Though hopelessly in debt, Struthers believes she's hit a lucky streak. Wachovia, which owns her mortgage, issued a letter of default more than six months ago. Foreclosure loomed. But then, in a hearing, the bank said it had misplaced the original promissory note. And then the bank went strangely silent and the letters stopped.

"We're hoping to stay in this house a little bit longer," said Struthers, who, herself, is now applying for jobs in loan modification.

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