Mortgage-Rescue Fraud on Rise Across Florida

Jul. 15–Hipolita Roustand, who cleans homes for a living, figures she scrubbed more than 20 of them to come up with the $1,995 that she paid Wineberg, Lopez & Rodriguez Co. to help her modify her mortgage.

Like hundreds of other Florida homeowners who have complained to the state about the Orlando-area company, she said she got nothing for her money.

“They just robbed everyone who was trying to find a solution, and they get you deeper in a hole,” the 51-year-old Roustand said as she cleaned a west Orlando church last week. “You have to work so hard to earn $2,000.”

The number of companies or nonprofit corporations being investigated by the state Attorney General’s Office for mortgage-modification or foreclosure-rescue fraud has grown to more than 40, including 11 with ongoing investigations in the Orlando area.

The various operations are accused of collecting upfront fees to help people modify their home loans or rescue their house from foreclosure. Under the state Foreclosure Rescue Fraud Prevention Act, which became law last October, companies can’t charge upfront fees for foreclosure-rescue services or loan-modification services related to a foreclosure.

In Roustand’s case, she paid Wineberg, Lopez & Rodriguez her entire savings of $700 plus biweekly payments of $260.

The company had sought to appeal to Hispanics in loan trouble by advertising on Spanish-language radio and television stations, said Ryan Wiggins, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office. A number of the other foreclosure-rescue firms being investigated also appeared to target Hispanics, she said, even in some cases in which Hispanics operated the “rescue” companies.

“They were exploiting people’s vulnerabilities,” Wiggins said. “They are preying on their fears, and that a lot of people don’t know the law and don’t know where they stand.”

The Wineberg case has drawn the most attention in Florida, with more than 700 consumer complaints.

Roustand said she went to the less-than-year-old company’s Hunter Creek offices in southwest Orange County about a month ago and discovered dozens of other homeowners gathered in the hall and in front of the building trying to demand answers but getting none. The company’s two Orlando offices, on Old Winter Garden Road and John Young Parkway, are now closed, as is an office in St. Petersburg.

The Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit in state Circuit Court accusing co-owners William Rodriguez, and Freddy Lopez Sr. of deceptive and unfair trade practices. Lopez claimed to be a “real estate guru” and Rodriguez a “mortgage specialist,” the state’s complaint alleges. (Neither Rodriguez nor Lopez could be reached for comment.)

Most of the businesses or nonprofit organizations under investigation appear to have closed shop or — as in the case of the Helping Hands Foundation, a HUD-certified, nonprofit housing-counseling agency in Orlando — would not return calls.

The Attorney General’s Office has also filed a lawsuit against another Orlando loan-modification company, Three Angels Community Action Network Inc., and its president, Sherrard A. Haugabrooks. Bolstered by 15 consumer complaints, the suit alleges Haugabrooks’ company charged homeowners upfront fees generally equal to a monthly mortgage payment.

Consumer complaints aren’t necessary to launch an investigation, officials said. “We don’t necessarily need a high volume of complaints, or even any complaints, to initiate an investigation, although complaints do help establish a pattern of behavior,” Wiggins said.

So far, the Attorney General’s Office has settled one Orlando-related case of foreclosure-rescue fraud. Homestead Protection Services LLC of Maitland agreed to pay more than $20,000 in restitution to former customers as the result of a state-initiated lawsuit that had accused the firm of charging homeowners $997 to $3,500 each to “rescue” them from foreclosure.

According to the state’s lawsuit, customers got little if anything in return for their money.

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