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HOUSING: Help Investigate “Signs of Deception”

March 1, 2010
By Ben Protess, Amanda Zamora and Lagan Sebert
Huffington Post Investigative Fund
9:36 pm | 18 Feb 2010

Drive through most any city in America and the offers will leap out at you:  “Repair Your Credit!”  “Modify Your Loan!” “Sell Your House Quick!”

The creators of these signs — Hard Times Profiteers, as we at the Huffington Post Investigative Fund have dubbed them — are moving to capitalize on the financial troubles of others. They are posting advertisements on walls, street lamps and bus shelters. The ads range from handwritten cardboard cutouts to printed plastic signs.

The Investigative Fund has begun collecting photographs of these ads in the Washington D.C. area. Now we’d like you, our readers, to help us find them across the country.  Have you spotted suspicious signs in your neighborhood, or on your way to work? Snap a photo and send it to us, and we’ll post it on our interactive map.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Searching for Signs of Deception » Send us photos of suspicious signs in your neighborhood.

We’re also still collecting the stories of people who have been victims of real estate schemes.  We’re looking for your tips and stories to help us investigate.

As for the roadside signs, during the boom times, these magic-marker notices often advertised: “We buy houses.” These days, with a record number of homeowners defaulting on loans, they are giving way to signs that pitch mortgage modification and foreclosure rescue schemes.

Law enforcement groups warn that companies charging upfront fees could be behind the ads. This practice is illegal in some states and the Federal Trade Commission has  proposed outlawing it nationwide. Also, in many U.S. towns, it’s illegal to post these so-called “bandit signs” without a permit.

James McNeill, a real estate agent in Mesa, Ariz., took to tearing down signs when he noticed that many didn’t include business names or licensing logos, as required by local law.  “I call and get a recording, usually an information gathering type — leave your name, number, email, date of birth, do you own a home, and on at least one occasion asking for [a social security number] — so that was a scam for sure,” McNeill told the Investigative Fund.

In Baltimore, Robert Strupp, director of research and policy at the Community Law Center, says he has collected about 1,200 signs posted throughout the city since 2006. “People were actually calling the numbers on the signs and falling victim to some of these scams,” Strupp said in a recent interview.  “We hear it in their voice — we hear their stories of people who bought a house to live in and someone talks them into selling it – leaving them with nothing.  It’s very sad.”

VIDEO: Baltimore Lawyer Robert Strupp Battles ‘Bandit’ Advertisers

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