Workshop warns, advises homeowners

Despite recent efforts at the state and federal levels to remedy rapidly spiraling foreclosures, their number continues to rise, especially in hard-hit Broward County, which saw 4,521 foreclosure filings last month. The more governments try to do, the less they can overcome the information deficit. Many of the state’s homeowners in foreclosure simply do not know the options available.

In the first of what could be several workshops in the area, more than 100 people filled the Miramar Civic Center Saturday morning to attend a program offering one-on-one counseling from banks, lawyers, credit companies and state officials aimed at informing struggling homeowners of the potential solutions available to help them stay in their homes.

“South Florida has been hit hard by foreclosures. We’re one of the states that has seen the most growth — this is the other side of it,” said Gus Zambrano, Director of Miramar’s Economic Development and Revitalization Department.

Zambrano said much of the workshop was meant to educate homeowners to the several federal programs offering assistance, as help at the state level was limited largely to fraud prevention. Consisting of one-on-one meetings and streaming video on financial discipline, residents also learned about property taxes, legal aid and employment help. The state’s Department of Financial Services advised on problems with property insurance, along with the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office.

“Our program tries to help people who have fallen into a hole and let them know what options are out there for them,” he said. “One of the biggest problems is the responsiveness of financial institutions, he said.

The most common scenario is that homeowners default on their mortgages and then are foreclosed before they can initiate or complete the loan re-modification process.

“There’s a very large backlog — for a variety of reasons — and people don’t know what’s going on. Every situation is unique — but trying to get through the maze to get the help you need is mind-boggling. We’re trying to help people find which path to take.”

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The Attorney General’s office sent a contingent to warn homeowners on the problem of foreclosure fraud.

“About a year and a half ago, the Attorney General saw that Florida had no protection for homeowners in loan modifications,” said Cindy Guerra, Regional Deputy Attorney General for South Florida. “As for the agencies that advertise mortgage rescue, we could only go after them for deceitful and unfair trade practices violations, but without any more safeguards.”

The law Attorney General Bill McCollum proposed was signed in October 2008, prohibiting companies from taking money up front, Guerra said.

“But we see some people have ignored the law. There are thousands of homeowners about to lose their homes — and the companies have these fabulous advertisements offering to save them.”

She said the companies charge them $1,500 to $2,000 up front and then require the homeowners to pay them monthly fees — effectively paying them rent to stay in their homes, and ultimately leaving them homeless. Guerra also said the tactics are particularly targeted toward Hispanics and the elderly.

“There are a lot of people taking advantage of the situation — we’re asking consumers to be extra alert, and not let their emotions get in the way and become victims. It’s hard to get restitution once you give the money upfront.”

Zambrano said the city plans similar workshops in the fall.