By Chris Wood
I’m sure you’ve seen the hand posted, sharpie scribbled signs on telephone poles. They say “I Buy Houses” or “No Credit, Foreclosures OK.” They also might say “Easy Terms, No Money Down!” or a variation on the concept. It’s attractive, seems easy, and a quick solution to a distressed homeowners situation.
But not so quick. “Crystal & Kevin” (not their real names) are a couple who have found a clever way here in Tucker and nearby Stone Mountain to target potential victims.
Well known and much liked, long time Tucker resident and senior citizen “Della” had lost her job and was concerned that she would lose her house. She felt alone and worried, discreetly sharing her fears with her neighbor across the street. One day Crystal introduced herself to homeowner Della through her son’s neighborhood friend. They got along great! Della and Crystal laughed and chatted, so Della felt relaxed and comfortable enough with Crystal to tell her about her financial situation, how she didn’t know what to do.
Trying not to come across as desperate yet feeling like she had made a new friend, little did she know that she was playing into Crystal and her husband Kevin’s hands. She listened optimistically to the idea that Crystal then suggested.
Crystal told Della that since she was a licensed realtor that they could help each other out. Crystal and Kevin needed a place to rent so their kids wouldn’t have to change schools mid-term, so why not let them move in, put the house up for sale for her and trade out fees in exchange for rent? What a coincidence!
Thinking that her prayers had been answered, Della agreed to give Crystal and Kevin the keys to her house and moved away, assuming that the house would be sold and she would be rescued financially.
Unfortunately for Della, she didn’t do her homework. If she had, she would have discovered the fact that just weeks earlier, Crystal and Kevin had been involved in another foreclosure scenario. That house was literally around the corner from Della's. In that case, Kevin and Crystal were forced to move out of a property that they personally lived in, coincidentally just days before they met Della. Now that particular house is tangled up in the legal purgatory of “No Clean Title.”
Crystal & Kevin had created a “company” and “sold” the house to themselves, yet still were foreclosed on. Since Della had no background information and felt she could trust Kevin and Crystal, she believed that they would be good renters while helping her to sell her house. After all, her neighbor’s kids and Crystal’s kids were school mates. What could go wrong?
To quote Amanda Abrams of the Washington Post published January 18, 2013, “(just as) the housing bubble produced predatory lenders offering mortgages that were too good to be true, its successor, the foreclosure crisis, has led to a wave of rescue scams. Preying on desperate homeowners who are late on their mortgages, fraudsters tout their expertise and special connections with banks in guaranteeing that they will be able to help clients — for a price, of course.
”Unknowingly, Dellla’s new tenants had no intention of fulfilling any real or forged contract to sell Della's house. What Kevin & Crystal did do is pretend to sell the house. Since Crystal at one point had a realtors license, she had unused agent signs and was able to put a for-sale sign in the yard, but there were no real efforts beyond a sign to help Della. Instead, Crystal and Kevin lived in Della’s house, allowed it to be foreclosed on and disappeared…for awhile.
Della now has officially become a victim of a scam. Her credit is in the gutter, and she hasn’t got the financial resources to fight the bank in court.
It’s been about a year now and one sunny day in Spring, Della’s former neighbor notices that Kevin and Crystal are back. They apparently have keys to enter the property, but this time they aren’t moving in. The second phase of this scam is about to begin: renting bedrooms out of the house to new people. In this case, two young adult males whom don't seem to own a car and are regularly seen walking the streets in this residential neighborhood. Less than a block away is a family with three young daughters.
Kevin and Crystal have successfully converted Della’s house into a “boarding house.” Although they have no legal right to be on the property, they are boldly using it for income. The house is falling into disrepair, the lawn is unkempt, and the neighbors feel frustrated at the situation. Sadly, Della hasn’t gotten a dime and feels guilt and remorse for unwittingly causing what she considers injury to her former neighborhood.
But that isn’t the end of the story, because this isn’t Kevin and Crystal’s first rodeo. The couple apparently have been building their “empire.” Upon investigation, it turns out that Kevin and Crystal’s “company” name is associated with several run-down residential properties in DeKalb County. There are possibly multiple victims of their scams. Remember the former residence that Kevin and Crystal lived in that was foreclosed on? Lately the neighbors of that property have spotted Kevin entering that house also. When asked, he replies to their questions with the answer that “he’s getting ready to rent it.” What can the neighborhood do? Apparently not much, yet.
Unfortunately, according to local law, if a property owner doesn’t make a police report then there is no actual victim. That’s right; Kevin can walk in, and for all purposes steal an entire house. And better - he can make it into a money machine!
For the neighborhood, this adds insult to injury in several ways. First, the causing of two foreclosures within a half-mile of each other brings down property values dramatically. Second, the ensuing decay and dilapidation of the properties makes it more difficult for a homeowner to sell their home. Who wants to buy a house that is next to a vacant run-down home, or worse, a run-down tenement style rental property?
Sadly, people like Kevin and Crystal have no sympathy for the victims they target and worse, they seem to have the system on their side. Until someone can convince the lender that crimes are being committed on their property there is little recourse.
If you suspect that you have been a victim of a loan modification scam or mortgage fraud there is not much you can do other than file complaints. The best defense is to be aware that this crime is rising rapidly in part to the ageing generation here in Tucker, unemployment or even illness that can cause a person to get behind on their house payment.
If you believe that you have been approached by someone illegitimately offering to help you with your mortgage problems, there is a way to find out, before you do what Donna did, and avoid victimization. For example, if the person won’t go to your bank with you to an official notary that should set off warning bells.
There are websites one can find help or answers on. The site Prevent Loan Scams is an online resource for individuals who are looking for information or help. They also have a complaint form where you can submit your concerns or give details such as names, numbers and dates.
The Nationwide Mortgage Licensing System is a site where you can enter a company or an individual’s name into a database to see if they are a licensed and legitimate mortgage company or lender.
Another site is the Department of Banking and Finance which has volumes of legal information but is generally difficult for the average person to navigate. Additionally, the home loan help page of your bank will have consumer protection resources or help numbers for you to call. The Bank of America offers these tips:
- Beware of any person or organization that asks you to pay a fee in exchange for housing counseling services or modification of a past due loan.
- Beware of anyone who says they can "save" your home if you sign or transfer over the deed to your house.
- Do not sign over the deed to your property to any organization or individual unless you are working directly with your mortgage servicer to forgive your debt.
- Never make your mortgage payments to anyone other than your mortgage servicer without their approval.
Della’s neighborhood is now facing an uphill battle to have her house vacated by the bank - the real owners. Had Della known to ask for help from her bank, she may have been able to keep her house and also may have been able to have Kevin and Crystal charged with a crime.
It’s not too late though for Della’s neighborhood. Soon Crystal and Kevin will get caught in the tangled web they have woven. They may have thought that because Tucker is a great neighborhood area populated by caring and friendly residents that they would be undetected, but that very trait is the one that has exposed their scheme.
Chris Wood is a freelance writer