Officials: New Foreclosure Scam Preys on Desperate Homeowners

Calif. AG files $60M suit against company offering "predatory lending" help.

November 28, 2010, 1:00 PM

Nov. 28, 2010— -- Tim and Jenny Lawson say they were three months behind on their $390,000 mortgage when they received a letter from a company called U.S. Loan Auditors offering help.

"Your lender ... is currently under investigation for predatory lending. Based on our information you may be a victim, and may qualify to participate in a lawsuit against them," the letter said.

The couple paid U.S. Loan Auditors $8,900 over five months, and on the company's advice, stopped making their mortgage payments, Jenny Lawson says. A lawsuit was filed on their behalf, but only after their home was foreclosed, she added.

They were evicted from their three-bedroom home in September. Today, they live in a 29-foot-long recreational vehicle in a trailer park an hour south of Sacramento in Isleton, Calif.

"What they promised ... that's not what happened," Jenny Lawson says. "Now this is where we ended up."

California's attorney general says the Lawsons are the victims of a new type of scam sweeping across the country, one that preys on desperate Americans caught up in the foreclosure crisis.

U.S. Loan Auditors and similar outfits are promising to conduct "forensic audits" of mortgage transactions to find evidence of "predatory lending" and fraud, and use that evidence to haul lenders into court and obtain new mortgages at far more favorable interest rates, officials say.

The companies make "very bold claims" but "in most cases forensic loan audits cannot help homeowners to cancel their mortgages," said James Reilly Dolan, assistant director for financial practices at the Federal Trade Commission.

In October, California Attorney General Jerry Brown sued U.S. Loan Auditors, its legal arm My U.S. Legal Services and the companies' owners for $60 million, accusing them of scamming hundreds of homeowners out of anywhere from several thousand dollars to, in one case, $55,000.

The suit demands civil penalties, restitution for victims and injunctions to block the company from making false claims.

In legal papers, Brown's office alleged that "every step of the way, the defendants lie" to clients and provide "nothing of value and put them in even greater danger of losing their homes."

"They lie about the results they have obtained for their clients, claiming they have never lost a case, when in fact their cases have been routinely dismissed," Brown's office charged.

"They lie about the legal effect and benefit of filing a predatory lending case, falsely telling consumers, for example, that lenders cannot foreclose once a predatory lending case has been filed against them, that their mortgage payments will either be reduced or frozen entirely during litigation and that banks will settle quickly."

Brown's office also charged that the "predatory lending" lawsuits generated by the company "are cranked out by non-lawyers ... using a fill-in-the-blanks 'Hot Docs' template. The complaints are virtually identical from client to client and in the vast majority of cases are drafted and filed without any review or approval by any attorney."

A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 2 on Brown's request for a restraining order and a freeze of the company's assets.

U.S. Loan Auditors issued a brief written statement after the attorney general's lawsuit, promising to "vigorously defend ourselves against these allegations."

"We look forward to the opportunity to clear our names and to continue to support the efforts to assist and protect the rights of California homeowners against the fraudulent, predatory lending practices to which they fell victim," said U.S. Loan Advisors co-founder Jeffrey Pulvino.

Sacramento U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez spoke harshly of the company's practices in a separate case brought by Bank of America against U.S. Loan Auditors.

"This has sham written all over it. This is the blue ribbon of shams," Mendez said during a hearing in August. Consumers "are spending a whole lot of money for services that aren't delivering anything," he said.

The company's Website contains no hint of controversy, declaring: "We Find Fraud Giving You Legal Leverage" and offering glowing testimonials by people identified as satisfied customers. According to the Web site, the company even offers "a 100% money back guarantee."

But, like nearly all of the customers of U.S. Loan Auditors contacted by ABC News, Carolyn and Mile Durbin say they have had no luck in trying to get back the money they paid to the company.

They were locked in a dispute with their bank after their monthly mortgage payment ballooned to $3,469 from $1,569, and -- on the advice of their attorney at the time -- they were behind in their payments when they were contacted by the company.

"U.S. Loan Auditors sent us a letter saying, 'Hey, we are investigating your lender.' And we said, 'Oh, great, that's terrific: lawyers, investigating our lender,'" Carolyn Durbin said.

She said the company charged them an upfront fee of $3,500 -- one percent of their mortgage -- for the forensic audit and $1,000 a month for what the company described as ongoing legal fees.

The audit uncovered few defects in their mortgage -- not even a forged signature the Durbins knew existed on one document, Carolyn Durbin said.

Eventually, the company advised the couple to declare bankruptcy to stave off foreclosure, she said. The reprieve was temporary, however, and they still lost their home. Adding insult to injury, she said, the company kept billing them $1,000 a month after the foreclosure.

"We finally had to close the account, the bank account, because they wouldn't stop charging us," Carolyn Durbin said.

Today the couple and their two children live in a 1,300-square-foot rental in Natomas, Calif., outside of Sacramento, a couple blocks from the 2,600-square-foot house they considered their dream home.

"We're out $8,500 at this point," Carolyn Durbin said. "Where it stands now is that they have all our money, we have nothing."

ABC News visited the headquarters of U.S. Loan Auditors in Rancho Cordova, Calif., east of Sacramento.

Employees would not open the door or answer the phone. One worker threatened to call security and claimed that a gag order barred the company from commenting. A spokesman for Brown's office said no gag order has been imposed.

A sign tacked to the door said, "We are temporarily unable to speak or meet with you at the moment due to changes we are making to improve our ability to service our customers. If you have any specific questions, contact your attorney."

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