People Helping People: Learn how to avoid foreclosure prevention scams

You see the signs everywhere these days. Sometimes just handwritten on poster board, the signs line our roads offering quick foreclosure prevention solutions. While many of us can ignore them, for the thousands of households in Georgia facing home foreclosure, these signs seem to offer a desperately needed lifeline.

Over the last few years, a thriving foreclosure prevention industry has arisen with little-known companies or individuals offering to keep families in their homes in exchange for some very large payment fees.

The problem is that many of these so-called solutions just aren't real.

There are a number of ways that average people in our community are becoming victims of foreclosure prevention fraud. Some of these tactics have become so common that the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has even put together a list of the various strategies that are sometimes used. They include "Foreclosure Rescue and Refinance Fraud," in which a household is told to make house payments directly to a second party - not their lender - while the second party supposedly works with the lender. In fact, this second party keeps the money - and any other fees that they charge the unwitting household.

Next, there is the "Debt Elimination Scheme," in which an outside party tells a household they can eliminate debts using nonexistent laws or non-applicable financial techniques.

Finally, a third scam uses "fake government modification programs" in which a party claims to represent the government or a government affiliated agency. They may then charge you various fees and obtain private information about you. In return, a household receives nothing but more debt.

These are just a few of the different types of foreclosure prevention scams in our community. So what can a resident do to avoid this? NeighborWorks America, a national housing agency, offers some specific advice. Think of it as the "three nevers" of foreclosure.

· Never go to help from someone that claims he or she can stop your foreclosure for a fee.

· Never give your financial information to someone over the phone or online to a company you haven't first thoroughly checked out. Visit www.findaforeclosurecounselor.org to see a list of organizations that have been specifically approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

· Never send your mortgage payment to anyone besides your lender. Legitimate aid agencies may indeed work with your lender but will never take or "transfer" your mortgage payment.

For more than a decade, Gwinnett County has been home to a community-based agency offering a range of housing services, including free foreclosure prevention services. That agency is The IMPACT! Group. Founded in 1992, the IMPACT! Group is a nonprofit, nonpartisan agency dedicated to building a stronger Gwinnett County and northeast Georgia through various housing assistance services. Our agency provides services for homeless families, develops affordable rental housing in Gwinnett, and offers homeowner education and free individual counseling to residents.

At a time when our neighbors facing foreclosure are turning to private companies or individuals that may consist of simply a Post Office Box, The IMPACT! Group offers free access to housing counselors through our office in Lawrenceville. Because we rely on funding from community donors, there are no restrictions on the types of people that we can see. Just as importantly, our housing counselors have received nationally recognized training from HUD in housing counseling solutions. While not everyone's home can be saved, we do not charge for our counseling and can give homeowners an honest assessment of their situation.

The earlier that homeowners contact us when they become behind in their bills, the better the chances that we may be able to help them. If you or someone you know is falling behind on mortgage payments due to rising interest rates or other causes, give The IMPACT! Group a call at 678-808-4477 and ask to speak to a housing counselor. Also, you can visit us online at www.theimpactgroup.org.

People Helping People is a weekly column written by the executive directors of nonprofit organizations in Gwinnett County. Today's column was written by Tom Merkel, president/ executive director of the IMPACT! Group.

Need help or know someone that does? The Gwinnett Helpline directs callers to the appropriate nonprofit agency. Call 770-995-3339.