Woman says she was scammed by South Florida law firm
FTC receives 57 complaints about Starr Law Group
POMPANO BEACH, Fla. – A Local 10 News viewer contacted "Call Christina" with a claim that the law firm she hired to assist in securing a loan modification didn't perform as promised.
Local 10 News investigative reporter Christina Vazquez uncovered dozens of complaints, and learned that a rule that prohibits companies from collecting up-front fees doesn't apply to lawyers.
"I am a law enforcement officer trying to do the right thing," the consumer victim, who did not want to be identified, said. "I've gone through everything to save this house."
The woman is a single mother, who said it all started with a phone call.
"Devon Mathews from Starr Law Group called me, stating to me they could help me save my home," she said.
In an email to the woman, Mathews wrote, "Not to rush you, but we need to get this done before 2:30 p.m."
The victim said Mathews wanted a deposit of $2,495 and said if she paid him the deposit then, "We will get this taken care of for you."
"Did you ever meet him in person?" Vazquez asked the woman.
"No," she said.
Mathews said the company would go on record with her lender "as your attorney of record and halt any foreclosure proceedings," adding "to get you a fresh start, so you and your family can take a deep breath and move on with your life."
The woman said she made the payment in April of last year.
If that money represents an attorney's fee, then that is a huge attorney's fee considering where she was in her foreclosure case, according to consumer protection attorney Jason Weaver and foreclosure defense attorney Bruce Jacobs.
"This is what happens when you pick up the phone call and you listen to these people selling you snake oil, promising you the world," Jacobs said. "Part of the problem was that the client came after she already lost everything."
"When somebody starts promising you things that late in the game, as a guarantee, that should be a red flag that something is wrong," Weaver said.
Christine Puzon, an attorney who claims she was working on behalf of Starr Law Group in August, sent the woman an email stating that her file was under review with the lender's underwriters.
In September, she claimed a final answer from the lender was imminent. In that same email, she also addressed the money the viewer owed the firm.
"She said they needed additional funds," the woman said.
The email confirmed that the woman made a $1,500 payment in July and said they were willing to settle the outstanding balance for $2,000.
A month later, the woman received a disengagement letter for unpaid fees that said, "We will instruct counsel to file a motion to withdraw from your foreclosure case."
But a month after that, "She would file this motion saying I no longer want to keep my home," the woman said.
Puzon withdrew the woman's motion to try to stop the foreclosure sale.
"I had never seen the documentation," the woman said. "Her signature is on there - nothing from me."
The woman said the move was made without her knowledge or consent.
That's a claim Puzon called "untrue" in a response letter to the Florida Bar about the complaint adding: "After performing further case law research, it appeared the motion was legally insufficient."
"What's worse, is when a lawyer is going to withdraw from a case, there's a sacred rule you do no harm," Jacobs said. "You don't leave your client in a worse position than they were when you were on their case. And what I understand, there was a stipulation to withdraw her pleadings, the motions that were going to help her, so that to me (means that they) left the client in a worse position than she would have been."
"She even filed the motion saying I don't want to file the evidentiary hearing," the woman said.
"So where are you now?" asked Vazquez.
"I lost the home," the woman said.
The Federal Trade Commission has fielded 57 complaints from all across the country about Starr Law Group in the past four years.
Complaints have also been filed with the Florida Attorney General's Office, the Florida Bar, the Better Business Bureau and online complaint boards.
In many of them people claimed Starr Law Group did not make "due on their promises."
There was no one at the Southwest Miami-Dade office listed for attorney Christine Puzon when Vazquez arrived at the office, and no one came to the door at the home address listed for attorney Stuart J. Starr.
Furthermore, a person at the Pompano Beach address listed for Starr Law Group claimed the business did not operate out of that location.
The office had a generic name on the suite that simply said "law office."
Local 10 checked back in to find out exactly who is running out of this office, and they told us they work for the Puzon Law Group as in "Christine Puzon."
"I want to tell Starr Law Group they scammed me," the Local 10 viewer said. "They notified me, they contacted me, and told me they are able to help me."
"I guarantee you, if you take a phone call from someone who is calling you up from some boiler room operation and they give you a quick song and dance about (how) they are going to save your house and they can guarantee it, you are in trouble,' Jacobs said.
"Just be wary of empty promises and huge fees when you are late in the foreclosure game," Weaver said.
The Attorney General's office and the Florida Bar are currently reviewing her case.
Mathews and Puzon never responded to Local 10 News' requests for an interview.
Starr e-mailed Vazquez to say he is precluded by the Florida Bar rules from discussing any information regarding a client.
The Local 10 viewer's loan servicer and the company's president said they plan to work with her to try and keep her in her home.
Meanwhile, the FTC created a rule that makes it illegal for companies to collect fees until a homeowner has actually received and accepted an offer of relief from a lender, but lawyers can accept upfront fees.
In 2011, the FTC's Mortgage Assistance Relief Services (MARS) rule took effect. It was designed to protect homeowners from mortgage relief scams. It included a ban on upfront fees until a homeowner has received and accepted an offer.
"Banning the collection of up-front fees will protect homeowners from being victimized," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. "This is especially important at a time when so many people are behind on their mortgages or facing foreclosure."
Under the MARS rule, "a mortgage assistance relief company may not collect a fee until the consumer has signed a written agreement with the lender that includes the relief obtained by the company. When the company presents the consumer with that relief, it must inform the consumer, in writing, that the consumer can reject the offer without obligation and, if the consumer accepts, the total fee due. Before the consumer agrees to accept the mortgage relief, the company must also provide a written notice from the lender or servicer showing how the relief will change the terms of the consumer's loan (including any limitations on a trial loan modification)."
There is an attorney exemption: "Attorneys are generally exempt from the rule if they provide mortgage assistance relief services as part of the practice of law, are licensed in the state where the consumer or dwelling is located, and comply with state laws and regulations governing attorney conduct related to the rule. To be exempt from the advance fee ban, attorneys must also place any advance fees they collect in a client trust account and abide by state laws and regulations covering such accounts."
Attorneys said a major red flag is if an attorney asks for a lot of money upfront for possibly unreasonable promises.
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