Business

Tough times bring out the worst

The worst economic downturn in generations has created a perfect storm of financial shocks: evaporating investments, foreclosures and job losses. To add insult to injury, a new generation of thieves increasingly targets the dwindling bank balances of struggling Washington residents.

“As if people weren’t suffering enough from a bad economy, scammers are picking the pockets of the unemployed and others who absolutely can’t afford to lose more money,” Attorney General Rob McKenna said.

Among the threats: Bogus employers who steal your cash and personal information, empty promises to save your home, worthless grant application assistance and expensive debt relief programs that leave you in worse financial shape.

“This isn’t the time to let emotions drive your decisions,” McKenna warned. “Chasing a false ray of hope can drop you into a black hole. There are real experts who can lend a guiding hand – and their assistance is free.”

The Attorney General’s Office has created a new Recession Survival guide on its Web site at www.atg.wa.gov/economy.aspx to help Washington residents avoid schemes and access legitimate resources to survive the recession.

McKenna said his office is seeing a surge in marketing by questionable loan modification programs. Some of these businesses are operated by former subprime mortgage brokers or real estate brokers who charge thousands of dollars up front and promise to work with your lender to lower your mortgage payments. A homeowner can often receive the same sort of deal for free by contacting their lender or a HUD-approved housing counselor.

The Washington State Department of Financial institutions requires that any provider offering loan modifications be licensed as a loan originator, mortgage broker or consumer loan company. If you choose to go with a loan modification business, verify it has the necessary license by searching the DFI Web site at www.dfi.wa.gov or calling 1-877-RING-DFI.

Cash-strapped consumers should also be wary of for-profit organizations offering to help clean up their credit, especially if the business asks for money up front, promises to repair a bad credit report or quickly recommends bankruptcy as a solution. If you’re looking for help, it’s important to understand the differences between debt consolidation programs, which may help you pay off your debt, and debt negotiation plans, which can be risky.

Bogus job advertisements continue to a problem. Avoid any job that requires you to pay money up front or involves sending money by wire transfer. The Attorney General’s Office has seen an uptick in “mystery shopper” scams, in which job-seekers are hired to work undercover as customers. Often, their first assignment is to shop Moneygram, Western Union or one of the retailers that offer wire transfer services. Victims are sent a fake check, told to keep some as their pay and wire the rest. The check ultimately bounces, leaving the victim out hundreds of dollars.

For links to legitimate programs to help homeowners, job seekers, students and businesses, see www.atg.wa.gov/economy.aspx.

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