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(NNPA)—Like a relentless tide, foreclosures are pressing people into corners; closing in and eroding their ability to keep their homes. This is the reality confront­ing millions of American homeowners—many of them over 50 and many of them people of color. Sadly, the dream and investment of a lifetime—home ownership—is slipping away as job loss, the cost of getting sick, high interest rates and battered retirement funds challenge consumers’ ability to keep up with their mortgage payments.

Nationally, African-Americans represent just 9 percent of all homeowners. But according to NeighborWorks America, a non-profit organization that creates opportunities for people to achieve home ownership and administers the National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling Program (NFMC), foreclosures are disproportionately affecting African-American homeowners, who often have higher interest rates. Since African-Americans are also disproportionately represented among the nation’s unemployed, the foreclosure crisis is even more distressing for Blacks struggling to keep their homes. Federal programs like Hope Now and the Obama administration’s Making Homes Affordable plan have been created in response to the subprime lending crisis and continuing economic uncertainty. The programs bring together government, lenders, consumer counselors, borrowers and investors to negotiate mortgage modifications, repayment plans and reduced monthly payments, which keep foreclosure at bay for some homeowners. Unfortunately, many homeowners still find themselves in default even after adjustments are made.

NeighborWorks America also works with Hope Now to reach even more troubled homeowners. Together with community-based affiliates and partners, they counsel and educate high-risk clients on getting foreclosure prevention assistance and on avoiding ruthless con artists who take advantage of troubled homeowners. Sadly, in the middle of financial turmoil, homeowners must also be aware of fraudulent lenders peddling loan modification scams. These con artists present themselves as reputable lenders or counselors who promise to help people save their homes. But they actually prey on unsuspecting homeowners, manipulating circumstances so they can take possession of people’s homes. Vulnerable homeowners who face foreclosure and are desperate to keep their properties or to sell them quickly, are prime targets for these mortgage swindlers.

In response to the frightening increase of loan modification scams, NeighborWorks America has launched a national public education campaign called the Loan Modification Scam Alert. The effort is designed to alert homeowners about fraudulent practices and empower them to identify trustworthy resources, protect themselves against scams and report illegal activity.

We’re living through challenging times. If you’re at risk of losing your home—even if foreclosure proceedings are already in progress—you can still get help. Start by calling the Homeowners HOPE hotline,1-888-995-HOPE, a national hotline linked to NeighborWorks America, HUD, Hope Now and the Making Homes Affordable program.? Also, practice the following safety tips to help protect yourself, your family and your home:

•Walk away from housing “counselors” who ask for fees in exchange for counseling services—all Housing and Urban Development approved counselors provide assistance for free;

•Don’t let anyone pressure you or rush you into signing papers—walk away;

•Never sign or transfer the deed to your home to anyone who claims they can “save” your home if you do;

•Only make mortgage payments to your mortgage company.

•You don’t have to be a victim. Keep your home safe and keep it yours.

(Dr. Joyce Payne is AARP Foundation board chair and on the AARP board of directors.)

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