A new wave of "foreclosure relief" scams is hitting San Diego and other California cities where a lot of homeowners are "under water."
State and local prosecutors right now are sounding alarms and issuing warning signs, citing a 60 percent nationwide increase in reports of attempted fraud by so-called "mortgage rescue" consultants this year.
Thursday morning, they held a news conference at a foreclosed home that's back on the market in Mission Village, and introduced Leticia and Eddie Amavisca as victims of a crime that's escalating since the federal government's recent legal settlement with the nation's five largest banks.
The Amaviscas wound up being evicted from their home of 8 years in Chula Vista after engaging the services of a consultant who assured them that he -- as are they -- was "a Christian".
"We paid $1,000 to him, and he promised to work with the bank on behalf of a lower monthly payment," Leticia tearfully told the gathering of journalists. "He also instructed us not to pay our mortgage while he was negotiating with the bank."
The moral of the story, said Wayne Bell, general counsel for the California Dept. of Real Estate, is "Never put your trust in an unlicensed person ... don't pay anything up front, and don't pay in cash for mortgage relief services."
Since the settlements between the government and the five major lenders, a new round of financial assistance to reduce mortgage payments is becoming a powerful lure for scam artists who try to wedge themselves between troubled borrowers and their banks.
They make out like bandits, as prosecutors point out, and don't lack for leads on fresh victims.
"When you go into foreclosure, that information becomes public record, and it is in the newspaper a lot of times," said San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. "These people that are ready to prey on you get that information and then reach out. So where there's money, there's opportunity."
And there are devastating losses.
Ask the Amaviscas, who weren't aware that their home was foreclosed upon until an eviction notice was served on behalf of their lenders.
"They were like, 'Sweetie, I'm so sorry, but your home just got sold' -- after (their consultant) told me that on my birthday, that home was ours," said Leticia, again struggling with her emotions. "Two days later, they came and said the house was not ours any more. It's just wrong!"
The Amaviscas and their pre-teenage daughter now live in an Escondido mobile home park where Leticia was hired as manager.
Prosecutors say the couple's foreclosure consultant is serving an 8-year prison sentence.
Leticia is still bitter.
"It's not fair that your dreams, everything you had are lost, are gone," she said. "You lose everything. We still have it hard right now, I'm not going to lie to you. It's hard for us to get credit. It's hard for us to get anything.
"But we're working it through. Thanks to God, we're working it through."
Dumanis addressed this cautionary note to desperate homeowners: "Don't take a cold call. If somebody emails you directly, be suspicious right away. And I think the best thing is to call the bank and go on the Dept. of Real Estate's website. he attorney general's website, the Better Business Bureau. There are all kinds of ways."