Fraud • Consumer advocates, others seek signals from mortgage scam.
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Washington • The government's consumer finance watchdog is in talks to settle charges that a California businessman falsely promised to help lower homeowners' monthly mortgage payments.
Abraham Michael Pessar said that he is talking to officials and is close to resolving the case, the first of its kind brought by the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The case, one of only two public enforcement actions by the agency so far, is seen as a bellwether of its approach to enforcing consumer laws. Companies, lawyers and advocates are dissecting it for hints about how tough the new regulator will be and what practices it will target.
The government in July accused Pessar and another businessman, Chance Gordon, of misleading homeowners about their chances of negotiating lower mortgage payments. It says the two charged illegal, up-front fees and did little to help clients who signed up.
Pessar and Gordon marketed their service to struggling homeowners with mailed fliers and phone marketing, the government said in its complaint. Some of the fliers included the logos of government agencies and a Washington, D.C., mailbox address. It is illegal to imply falsely that a loan modification service is endorsed by the government.
The businesses' phone operators sometimes suggested that people should stop paying their mortgages in order to qualify for lower payments, the government said. That also would violate consumer protection laws.
A federal district court in central California allowed the bureau to raid the men's offices, freeze their assets and investigate claims that homeowners in at least 25 states were misled about the company's services. It appointed a receiver to oversee the companies.
Pessar declined to elaborate on his statement that he is close to settling the charges. A lawyer for Gordon disputed the charges and said that Pessar was responsible for the customer contacts cited by the government. The consumer bureau declined to comment because it does not confirm or discuss enforcement matters.
However, the agency last week filed papers indicating that Pessar has agreed not to dispute the allegations.
Loan modification companies are among the industries the agency began overseeing when it gained power in July 2011. Its enforcement division can bring civil charges against anyone accused of violating consumer protection laws related to financial products.