Suit: Firms victimized foreclosed customers

The N.C. attorney general has filed lawsuits against three Charlotte-area foreclosure rescue companies, saying they charged high fees but failed to save their customers' homes.

The goal: fight companies that offer homeowners false hope, Roy Cooper said during a news conference Thursday at the Better Business Bureau of Southern Piedmont in Ballantyne.

“These words of assurance are usually a scam,” he said. “Today, we are taking action.”

Cooper filed the suits in Wake County Superior Court against Robert Cassell Jr. of American Mortgage Assistance in Fort Mill, S.C.; Home Assure of Charlotte and its vice president, Michael Grieco; and Metrolina Mortgage Relief of Charlotte and its president, Jeffery Mika.

The suits allege that the companies target homeowners in trouble, using court records and Web sites, and claim they're experts who can stop foreclosure. The companies collect fees, usually one month's mortgage payment, and promise to negotiate with lenders.

But “the defendants perform no significant services to assist consumers in preventing their homes from being foreclosed on,” one suit says. “… Consumers lose much-needed monies that could have been used to pay their mortgage lenders or to provide for their families in a time of financial distress.”

Grieco of Home Assure said Thursday he was surprised to learn about the lawsuit. His company does not charge consumers in advance and has charged less than 10 percent of the more than 1,000 people it has helped, he said. It employs experts who have worked at lenders, from Wells Fargo to Countrywide, Grieco said.

“It doesn't seem like the attorney general did any type of (research),” he said. “This whole thing is just preposterous to me. … My fear is that they want to try to make an example of somebody.”

Officials from American Mortgage Assistance and Metrolina Mortgage Relief did not return phone calls.

In an Observer story last month about foreclosure rescue companies, Mika, the Metrolina president, said his business is a legitimate one that gets lumped in with con artists.

Foreclosures have been rising across the country, with mortgage woes spreading to a larger economic crisis. More than 4 million American homeowners with a mortgage were at least one payment behind on their loans at the end of June, and 500,000 had started the foreclosure process, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association, the Associated Press reported.

Cooper, a Democrat up for re-election Tuesday against Republican Bob Crumley, began investigating the Charlotte-area companies after consumers complained.

One homeowner, for instance, said she paid Metrolina $762 after the company guaranteed she would not lose her house. She got no help and had to declare bankruptcy, she told state officials.

The lawsuits, hinging on a 2005 law that makes it illegal for foreclosure assistance businesses to collect fees upfront, are seeking refunds for consumers, an order for the companies to stop doing business and other penalties, Cooper said. He said his office is investigating other companies, but Cooper declined to give further details.

Foreclosure rescue companies have cropped up as home foreclosures continue to rise. Some are legitimate, but in the past few years, mortgage rescue fraud has caught the attention of state and federal authorities and lawmakers.

There have been eight or nine legal actions against N.C. companies since 2005, from cease-and-desist orders to full-blown lawsuits, said Tom Bartholomy, president of the BBB of Southern Piedmont. The last few have resulted in refunds for consumers, he said.

There are 16 or 17 foreclosure rescue companies in the Charlotte area, and the BBB has gotten a number of complaints about many of them, Bartholomy said.

Overall, his office has gotten a couple thousand calls about the topic, a “top five” issue in recent years, he said.

“With the economy the way it is, with as tight as credit is right now, you always have scammers trying to take advantage” of people, Bartholomy said. “…These guys, they have no souls.”