A grand jury has indicted a lawyer with running a mortgage loan modification scam.
Howard Shmuckler, 67, allegedly preyed on the most vulnerable homeowners facing foreclosure, swindling them out of thousands of dollars and delivering nothing but false promises.
The indictment against him was returned in Pince George's County, Md. When the foreclosure crisis was at its worst in 2008, the county was called "ground zero."
The federal government's response to the crisis included programs to support struggling homeowners by modifying their mortgages at no expense to borrowers. But a two-year investigation by federal, state and local agencies uncovered an alleged fraud scam that preyed upon the poor.
Shmuckler, who worked out of offices in Northern Virginia, is charged with swindling 10 local homeowners, collecting thousands of dollars in fees, promising to help them reduce their monthly payments, and then making off with their money.
"You had very vulnerable victims here who were taken advantage of and really lost the American dream, [and] lost their homes as a result of this scam," said Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey.
Paulette Greaves of Oxon Hill, Md. was lucky -- she kept her home, but lost $4,500. Greaves said that over the phone, Shmuckler told her he could get her mortgage payments reduced under the federal program to help homeowners modify their mortgages.
"You know, I felt robbed," Greaves said. "I felt as though someone just took advantage of me."
And what did she get for her $4,500? "Nothing.... I'm still feeling sick to my stomach," she said.
Schmuckler's indictment is the first of its kind under a new law in Maryland. It's illegal in that state to charge an upfront fee for loan modification.
Investigators said Shmuckler hired a marketing firm called Nova Key, which placed ads on Spanish-language radio stations.
"The bottom line is whether we can put Mr. Shmuckler out of business, [and] whether we can recover funds for a couple of people," said Maryland Commissioner of Financial Regulation Mark Kaufman. "...The bigger issue is making sure people don't get into this problem in the first place."
Maryland homeowners can get free help if they need to modify their mortgages by calling Maryland Hope at 1-877-462-7555. Advisors are on duty daily until 8 p.m., or you can get help from their website at www.mdhope.org.
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