'Mortgage Rescue' Scams Hit Close to Home

Authorities report a spike in scams targeting homeowners facing foreclosure.

March 24, 2008— -- As the mortgage crisis continues to unfold, the FBI says incidents of suspicious financial activity banks reported to the bureau has skyrocketed, jumping from 28,000 cases in 2005 to 48,000 last year.

Among the factors fueling this two-year, 71 percent increase is a spike in scams targeting citizens facing foreclosure, one of which is known as the "home foreclosure rescue scam."

It's a familiar story, according to state and federal authorities, as well as homeowners interviewed by ABC News. In the scheme, predatory con artists promise financially strapped homeowners a lifeline, but it's a ruse. Sometimes they charge a fee and then disappear. And sometimes they push homeowners over the cliff into financial ruin.

Pamela Fowler, 49, found herself in such a position after she bought her dream home in Richmond, Va.

"The house was perfect," Fowler said, describing the four-bedroom brick house she shared with her daughter. It had ample space for her arts and crafts projects, a huge lot in a great location and "really good neighbors."

"I thought that was where we would spend the rest of our lives," she said.

But after a foot injury forced Fowler to leave her job with the State Police for three months, the Navy veteran and single mom was in financial crisis, sliding toward foreclosure.

With bills piling up, Fowler tried to refinance her home. Her bank said no. Then a mortgage firm offered what appeared to be a way out.

"These people came to me as my guardian angels to save me and I listened to them because I was desperate at that point in time," she said. "When you reach a point to where you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel, you think these people are gonna be your light."

But the people from the mortgage firm were no angels. Fowler says they told her they would buy the house and let her live in it for a year — rent free — until she could rebuild her credit and buy it back. She says she signed off on their paperwork, but instead of honoring their agreement with Fowler, she says they sold the house to another party and Fowler was forced out.

After the property was sold, Fowler says the mortgage company kept all the equity out of the home. As part of the FBI investigation into the scheme, a Virginia woman, Anna Essex Thorne, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with the mortgage documents she executed to buy the home.

Fowler's entire life savings, which was tied up in her home, is gone. She moved to North Carolina, where she lives in a mobile home. Fowler hopes to someday see the restitution money the defendant in the case is supposed to pay her as part of the plea agreement.

"I worked hard my whole life. I came from poverty and I had achieved the American Dream, and I feel they ripped it away from me," she said, tears welling up in her eyes. "I mean they took my future, my daughter's future … all that work, and now I feel like such a failure. I feel my whole life has been a failure."

With more than two million Americans facing the possibility of foreclosure, authorities say so-called rescue scams are on the rise.

Authorities say con artists are using the Internet, mailings and television to prey on homeowners facing financial ruin in the mortgage crisis.

Jackie Felton, chief of the FBI's Economic Crimes Unit, acknowledges that "everyone wants to be a homeowner," but that when those homeowners start to fall behind in payments, they become vulnerable.

"And when these fraudsters come in and they take advantage of those people who are in crisis mode, it's very disturbing," she said.

"It's unfortunate at that time when you are in crisis mode, most of us panic and that's the worst time to actually try to make a decision," she added.

And Felton doesn't believe the problem of mortgage scams is going to slow down any time soon. "Across the country, as these market conditions continue, I'm afraid we'll see more," she said.

To cope with rescue scams and other forms of mortgage fraud, the FBI has set up 35 mortgage fraud task forces across the country. A number of states, including California, Florida, Washington and Texas, have targeted firms exploiting homeowners drowning in the volatile housing market.

"Our office has more than a thousand complaints and we have prosecuted numerous companies dealing with thousands of people just here in the state of Texas and I know that this has been replicated across the country," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told ABC News.

"As they are facing one of the most challenging issues in their entire lives, they are thrown a life preserver, in the form of foreclosure rescue," Abbott said. "And it turns out to be nothing more than an anchor that pulls them under the tide and leads them to ruin.

"These scam artists that prey upon people who are going through the foreclosure process are the worst of the worst," he added. "They are not only robbing people of their money but they are robbing people of their dreams, which is why we are so aggressively prosecuting these scam artists across the state and country."

Fowler knows full well of the pain of losing her dream, and says she hopes other homeowners don't fall for the same kind of scheme she did.

"Don't believe it," she said. "No one's gonna come rescue you. Do not depend on somebody else to come in and rescue you, because they're not gonna rescue you; they're gonna take what you have. They will take advantage."