When Aleem Morris lost his job as a forklift operator several years ago, his life began to fall apart.
He fell behind on loan payments. His car was repossessed. And then, after his debt ballooned to $118,000, the Newark, N.J., house that had been in his family for 24 years went into foreclosure.
Just as things seemed most desperate, a flier arrived in the mail offering help. "Are you behind in your mortgage payments, and facing foreclosure of your property?" it asked.
It gave Morris hope, promising to shore up his credit and save his home. But months later, his two-story, vinyl-sided home had been stripped of about $127,000 in equity, he was still in debt, and the house was back in foreclosure.
"I had been conned," he said. 'Another nightmare all over again'
Morris, 32, is one of thousands of people across the country who have been duped by a fast-growing scam that targets some of the most vulnerable and desperate: people in danger of losing their homes.
These foreclosure "rescue" scams aren't new, but they are exploding across the country as criminals try to capitalize on the surging number of victims of the foreclosure crisis.
These criminals promise hope when there might be none. They take money upfront and say they will help modify the victim's mortgage; instead, they steal the money -- and sometimes the victim’s property.
Why now? To paraphrase one of America's most famous bank robbers: Foreclosures are where the suckers are. Last year saw an 81% increase in foreclosure filings from 2007 -- about 3.2 million in total -- and a 225% spike over 2006, according to RealtyTrac, an online marketplace for home foreclosures. Map: Foreclosures across the country
When relief will come is uncertain. A $300 billion foreclosure rescue bill was signed into law last year, though critics say it was too weak to stem the tide of foreclosures. President Barack Obama has introduced a $275 billion plan to halt soaring foreclosures, but only time will tell how successful the plan will be.
Meanwhile, the criminals continue to grow in number and brazenness.
"We think that the crest of the foreclosure rescue fraud is in front of us," said Brad Elbein, the director for the Federal Trade Commission's Southeast region. "We don't know where it's going to be, but we definitely think there is going to be more."
The FTC has filed lawsuits against six foreclosure rescue companies and has forced six others to cease operations. The agency expects to file additional lawsuits this year, Elbein said. Several attorneys