Too-good-to-be-true loan offer may be a cruel hoax

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Suppose you've been unable to make your mortgage payment on time because of a financial crunch. As a result, your lender has threatened to foreclose. Then you see an advertisement in a local paper under the ''money to lend'' classification. ''We will help you prevent foreclosure and save your home,'' the ad says. It sounds appealing, so you call the number for information.

The plan is simple and secure, you are told by the confident voice on the other end of the line. ''We'll come to your home to discuss the details and show you our contract.'' The next day, comfortably settled in your living room, the agent talks about how fortunate you are to have responded to his ad in the nick of time. Now you will have the money to avoid the lender's potential foreclosure action.

Does it sound too good to be true? It is.

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The agent talks about a ''loan'' to avert foreclosure, but the small print in the contract directs that you must transfer the deed to your home to the agent as part of the deal.

This scheme, preying on families in a temporary financial bind, is becoming ominously widespread throughout the country. The original offer looks like a helping hand being extended in time of need, but in reality it's often a cruel hoax. The offerer takes title to the property in order to ''secure'' his lent funds. But, in effect, he becomes the property owner, and the previous owner becomes his tenant.

As the new owner, the ''loan'' offerer can borrow large sums of cash against the equity in the property. And if the previous owner does not make his loan payments promptly, he is quickly evicted. In short, by falling for this line, a homeowner may find himself in a worse situation than would be the case in a final foreclosure action in the courts.

One Washington, D.C., company that consistently pushed this arrangement is now facing legal action. A complaint has been filed in the US District Court by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The FTC has received a temporary restraining order against the company's ''unfair and deceptive practices'' and has asked the court for a permanent injunction and an order for the company to cancel the contracts and make refunds to homeowners.

Here's another trap homeowners should avoid: Suppose you've been trying to sell your home for some time and finally a buyer comes along and offers an unusual proposition. Instead of accepting cash as a down payment, you would receive selected diamonds and rubies that are valued at the full down-payment amount. The buyer points out that these gems are steadily increasing in value. ''In fact,'' the buyer adds, ''they have increased in value by 300 percent during the past few years alone.''

As further assurance, you are told that the gems are covered by a ''laboratory certificate'' that firmly establishes their true value. You eagerly accept the offer, thinking you will make more money on the sale of your home than you previously thought possible. But that may not be the way it turns out. Rather, you may lose more money than you thought possible.

Usually in deals of this kind, the gems are not worth nearly the amount indicated by the buyer, despite the offical-looking ''laboratory certificate.'' The so-called laboratory is a shady outfit, not respected or honored to any extent within the gem industry. The gems are really worth about 60 percent of the stated value.

And that lower, more realistic amount is the retail value. If the gems are sold to a dealer, the amount received would be the wholesale value, much less than the anticipated retail price.

Also, while certain grades of diamonds and other gems have indeed increased 300 percent over the past five years, the gems offered in your home-sale transaction are of grades that have increased in value at a much slower rate.

The above situation illustrates the type of problem being encountered by an increasing number of home sellers. Several state real estate commissioners, in fact, now are issuing special bulletins to alert consumers about the danger.

''A real-estate licensee representing a client in a real property transaction in which gemstones are tendered as all or part of the consideration should be alert to the many hazards to this client's interest,'' states a bulletin by the California Department of Real Estate.

Generally, it's not a good idea to accept gems in a real estate transaction unless the seller is skilled in evaluating gemstones.

Several years ago, there was a rash of cases where the home seller accepted a ''corporate note'' instead of cash as down payment, or in lieu of a mortgage or trust deed. The note was no more valuable than the corporate assets, which sometimes were nil.

The current gem offers are similar. Perhaps the best advice to a seller considering a gemstone offer is this: Tell the person making the offer to convert the gems to cash and then make another offer based strictly on cash. If the gems' value is as high and solid as was stated in the first offer, there should be no problem in immediate conversion to cash.

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