Targeting scam artists offering bogus legal services to distressed homeowners, the Federal Trade Commission on October 9 announced three suits against mortgage relief operations that allegedly victimized thousands of consumers.
In suits filed in federal court in Florida, California and Ohio, the FTC charged the companies with violating the Federal Trade Act and the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services rule by falsely claiming they could help homeowners avoid foreclosure. In some instances, the scammers allegedly promised but failed to deliver assistance from a “network” of lawyers, or falsely passed themselves off as attorneys.
“With many homeowners still struggling to hold onto their homes, the FTC takes a hard line against con artists who are seeking their next victim,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz at a press conference at the Justice Department touting the accomplishments in the past year of a multi-agency financial fraud enforcement task force effort.
Indeed, the FTC’s timing in bringing the suits does not seem coincidental. In court papers, lawyers for one of the companies being sued, Prime Legal Plans, protested that the FTC rushed to make its case.
“The FTC gave the Court the impression that there was a high profile emergency that required extraordinary action to protect consumers,” wrote Brian Kopelowitz of Fort Lauderdale’s Kopelowitz Ostrow Ferguson Weiselberg Keechl on October 8. “Notably, the FTC claims to have been investigating the Defendants for over a year, yet it has not articulated any exigent need to swoop in now on an ex parte basis.” Kopelowitz did not return a call seeking comment.
The FTC on September 24 sued Prime Legal and a long list of interrelated companies in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, alleging that the defendants falsely claimed to be a charity and charged consumers up to $750 a month, but did little or nothing to help them avoid foreclosure.
The next day, Judge Robert Scola Jr, granted the FTC’s request for a temporary restraining order, asset freeze and appointment of a receiver, ruling that there was “good cause to believe that immediate and irreparable harm will result from Defendants’ ongoing violations.”
According to the FTC, Prime Legal preyed on “financially distressed homeowners by luring them into membership programs with promises that they will receive full-service legal representation from expert foreclosure defense attorneys.”
Instead, the FTC said consumers were typically “assigned to a non-attorney customer service representative from Legal Plans and a paralegal from the law firm Litvin, Torrens, & Associates PLLC or Litvin Law Firm.”
Litvin Law Firm name partner Gennady Litvin declined comment. The firm, which is based in Brooklyn, is not named in the suit.
Further, according to the FTC, “in numerous instances, consumers who enroll do not receive legal representation. Although they may be assigned an attorney in a nominal sense, many consumers never meet or speak to a network attorney licensed in the state where they reside or where the property at issue is located, or have had only introductory conversations.”
The FTC charged the defendants with violating Section 5 of the FTC Act, which bars deceptive acts of practices, and the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services rule, which bans loan modification companies from collecting fees until homeowners have a written offer from their lender that they deem acceptable. The FTC said the parties also violated the Telemarking Sales Rule by calling consumers who had placed their names on the Do Not Call Registry.
Prime Legal lawyers, however, denied the charges, writing in court papers that the FTC “unreasonably relied on a small number of consumer complaints to support its allegations,” wrote Kopelowitz. “The FTC has attached 16 consumer complaints to its Complaint. The Court needs to understand that the Prime Defendants have had over 5000 customers enrolled for Prime’s services and has 2600 active customers in the program.”
Also, they noted they the company’s customer disclosure states, “Prime is not a law firm and does not provide legal advice.”
The FTC in its case against Newport Beach, Calif.-based American Mortgage Consulting Group, filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on September 18, alleged that the defendants “claim to be a ‘legal team’ or ‘law office’ that ‘will provide legal services’ to the consumer.”
The FTC alleged that the company and affiliates charged consumers an advance fee ranging from $1,495 to $4,495 and promised to secure substantially lower mortgage payments. “In fact, neither Home Guardian nor American Mortgage is a law office, and Defendants typically do not provide legal representation to consumers,” the complaint states.
According to online court records, American Mortgage has not yet responded to the suit. Judge David Carter on October 1 granted the FTC’s request for a preliminary injunction, asset freeze and receiver.
The FTC also sued Expense Management America and affiliates on September 25 in the Northern District of Ohio. The company pitched itself as “the solution to all the consumer’s financial problems,” according to the FTC, and falsely claimed they could secure more affordable payments for people.
But in that case, Judge James Gwin in a three-sentence order on September 28 denied the FTC’s motion for a preliminary injunction. Court records do not yet list counsel for Expense Management.
All three FTC cases bear a distinct similarity to one brought by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in July against California attorney Chance Gordon and The Gordon Law Firm for offering allegedly bogus foreclosure relief services.
The Dodd-Frank act transferred rulemaking authority over the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services rule to the CFPB, which re-named it Regulation O. The FTC, however, retains authority to enforce the rule.
Reporter Mike Scarcella contributed to this report.