The numbers themselves are bad enough -- the home foreclosure rate jumped 47 percent in March over the same month in 2006. But look behind the numbers, at who's getting evicted, and you'll likely find society's most vulnerable consumer, the senior citizen.
"Seniors are the ones who are losing their homes to foreclosure, because they have been the main target of predatory lenders," said Diane DiDonato, who owns a title company in Pittsburgh.
Pennsylvania, with its large population of senior citizens, ranked 19th in the nation in foreclosures in 2006. In 2005, about two-thirds of Pennsylvania mortgages in foreclosure were subprime loans, according to a study by The Reinvestment Fund, community development group in Philadelphia.
DiDonato, who worked in the title industry 25 years before opening her own agency two years ago, said she was unaware of the problem until recently. A large New Jersey mortgage company began sending her lots of business from Western Pennsylvania, with senior citizens making up the bulk of the clientele.
"I received a handwritten note from a customer cancelling her title order and her association with the lender because of the changes in her good faith estimate," DiDonato told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Because it was a handwritten note, I made a call to find that it was a senior who had been the victim."
DiDonato says the woman ended up getting an FHA loan with a low fixed rate. Then she began looking at other closings and saw a similar pattern. Senior citizens, many in need of cash, were tapping the equity in their homes in ways that put that equity at risk.
"Seniors get talked into taking out loans for more money than they need. Some people have borrowed 125 percent of the value of their home. They will never be able to recoup that," she said.
Senior citizens make attractive targets for predatory lenders for several reasons. They usually have owned their homes for many years, and have quite a bit of equity. They don't always understand the terms of these complex deals, especially when it comes to adjustable rates. They don't realize how much their monthly rates can rise until its too late. They are also very trusting.
"Seniors see a TV commercial featuring an actor from their generation and they think, why, that person would never lie.' So they enter into a bad deal and are betrayed by that trust," DiDonato said.
When seniors become homeless, because of foreclosure, during what are supposed to be their "golden years," the results can be truly devastating.
Allegheny County, Pennsylvania Sheriff's Office Sgt. Richard Fersch told the Pittsburgh Tribute Revue that in the last year, when deputies carried out foreclosure evictions, one distraught homeowner shot himself in his car and another hanged himself in his kitchen.
DiDonato says it has to stop, now. She has urged the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office to interview more vigorously to enforce predatory lending laws, and would like to see state agencies confer a designation of Certified Senior Advocate on financial planners who would pledge to assist seniors with financial matters. Otherwise, senior citizens will continue to fall victim to misleading commercials and aggressive sales people.
"It makes me sick to my stomach," she said.
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