Thursday, December 18, 2008

Trouble next door on Gilbert Street

By Erica Noonan, Boston Globe, MetroWest edition    December 18, 2008

     The mortgage crisis is not some faraway national problem to George Lewis and his neighbors. It has come home to Gilbert Street.
     During the first six months of this year, four of the 38 houses on this pleasant street a few blocks south of downtown Framingham were involved in the foreclosure process, which generally takes several months and requires several legal steps before a judgment is issued against an owner.
     Three of the houses, Nos. 11, 25, and 37-39, are clustered near the Winthrop Street end of Gilbert. 

     All three appear to be vacant. Trash and fliers have accumulated on the porch and lawn of No. 37-39. The fourth property, No. 64, is midway down the street, and still has a neatly kept appearance.
     The three-family house at 37-39 Gilbert looks as though it was vacated in midrenovation, after the LaSalle Bank National Association filed an order of notice for foreclosure against its owners, Neylor and Marcela Silva, in February, according to the state Registry of Deeds. On a recent visit, an old toilet lay in a side yard overgrown by weeds. Ripped weatherproofing partially covered an unfinished bay window, and toys and debris cluttered the backyard, alongside a soggy sofa covered in mildewed plastic. 

Major code violations and work performed without permits at 37-39 Gilbert Street
     "How can I sell my house if people see this?" said Lewis, a painter who has lived a decade in the otherwise well-kept neighborhood within walking distance to shopping and Waushakum Pond.
     The community is an ideal place for artists, Lewis said, affordable yet close to Boston and suburban cultural centers in Framingham and Natick. But the presence of the troubled houses is upsetting.
     "I am very concerned about preserving the value of my home. I think many of us on this street are," said Lewis, who mowed the lawn of the abandoned house over the summer to improve its curb appeal.
     Just a few years ago, things on Gilbert Street were different. Prosperity seemed abundant. At the height of the market in 2004 and 2005, houses on the street were selling for upward of $400,000. The house at 37-39 Gilbert sold for $560,000 in May 2005.
     Then the economy started to slow, and the housing market nationwide plunged amid the ongoing subprime mortgage crisis. In Framingham, by the end of October, foreclosure actions had begun on 350 houses out of the town's stock of 17,700 residential properties. That's up from last year's total of 336, according to the Warren Group, a Boston company that tracks local real estate data.
     Foreclosure has affected only about 2 percent of the houses in Framingham, but the unlucky coincidence of four houses going through the foreclosure process on his street has left Lewis worried about safety as well as property values.
     He said he pestered town officials for weeks to padlock 37-39, which he viewed as an invitation to squatters as well as a danger to firefighters and curious children, because so much of its flooring was ripped up during the start of renovations.
     "If someone gets hurt, they are going to sue the town, which is going to make the problem even worse," said Lewis.
     The other houses appear, from the outside, to be in better shape, but none of the owners of record could be reached to discuss what happened to their properties.
Driveway at 11 Gilbert Street. This single family house was illegally converted to a three-family.
State records show 11 Gilbert St. was bought for $379,000 in March 2005 by Salvador D. Linhares, and foreclosure proceedings began once in April 2007 and again in January. The process concluded with a foreclosure judgment in May, according to the Registry of Deeds. A message left at the most recent phone number listed for Linhares was not returned.
     REMAX realtor Didier Lopez said last month that he tried to sell 25 Gilbert - bought in 2005 for $345,000 by Ronaldo Solano - for between $225,000 and $240,000 several months ago. Solano had received an order of notice of foreclosure from lender Salem Five Mortgage Company LLC in August, according to state records. 

Illegal paving of property at 25 Gilbert Street
     There was no sale, Lopez said, and he was not sure about the current status of the house.
Real estate sales records show 64 Gilbert St. was bought in July 2006 for $415,000 by Elizabeth Sanchez. Lender GMC Mortgage LLC first filed an order of notice to foreclose in December 2007, and received a judgment in May. The property was purchased in May for $195,000 by Haider Nasir, according to real estate records. Attempts to contact Nasir with questions about his plans for the property were unsuccessful.
     Another Gilbert Street resident said he fears the value of his house, bought in 2006 for
Many trucks and vehicles at 25 Gilbert Street.
This was the case with a number of other properties
on Gilbert Street.
$265,000, is less today, despite an overhaul of the plumbing system. "We bought this home to gain equity and right now I think I have lost more than I put in, which I find really disheartening," said the 37-year-old homeowner, who asked that his name not be printed. "I look down a few houses from me and see abandoned property; why would someone want to move in here?"
     He said he feared that speaking publicly about the issue would inflame tensions in town because several of the foreclosed homeowners were Brazilian immigrants. "I love living in a diverse neighborhood; I am not blaming the people in the houses. But back in 2006, if I had seen a foreclosure sign here, I would have changed my mind" about buying.
     Framingham officials might have prevented some of the problem by monitoring construction on the street more closely, and stepping in when overextended homeowners were cutting corners on proper permitting, Lewis contends.
     More than one of the four Gilbert Street houses appear to have lost value as a result of improperly permitted renovations, in addition to the other foreclosure problems, acknowledged Framingham building inspector Michael Foley.
     Foley said he sympathizes with the plight of residents in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, but he maintains that municipal officials with limited staffing cannot possibly monitor the nuts and bolts of every single house project. He said his department didn't know the extent of the problems with the Gilbert Street houses until it was too late.
     "I don't believe it's the town's fault," Foley said. "Neighbors know far more about the neighborhoods than the people in Town Hall, and they need to keep us informed about what's happening that's not right."
     Foley's three-person department keeps a database of Framingham properties under foreclosure action. They try to monitor the buildings, even running nighttime inspections looking for after-hours candlelight in vacant buildings.
     "We don't know these people. But we have seen many, many situations of people who have hopes and dreams that shatter when the money isn't there anymore," he said. "What change happened in their lives where they couldn't finish what they started?"
     Foley said accountability for some of the more decrepit-looking properties is not as simple as it would seem.
     Efforts by officials to locate the Silvas, the last listed owners of 37-39 Gilbert, have been unsuccessful, and the town - probably due to a paperwork backlog from state and federal efforts to slow down foreclosures - is still unable to determine who owns the property and is responsible for its upkeep, said Foley.
     Town officials would like to head off similar situations in the future. Foreclosure prevention is the goal of several local and state efforts, including the HOPE Now program operated by the South Middlesex Opportunity Council Inc., a regional antipoverty social services organization.
     In Framingham, 64 families are enrolled in the program, which helps struggling homeowners negotiate terms with lenders.
     More than 80 percent of the program's clients are owner- occupants, and 60 percent had a sudden reduction in income from problems such as illness, job loss, divorce, or death in the family, said the director of SMOC's Housing Services Center, Ozzy Diagne. Less than one-third are owners of investment property, or families who refinanced with adjustable-rate or balloon loans, he said.
Charles Gagnon, the nonprofit organization's chief operating officer, said suddenly abandoning a house and a neighborhood is sadly commonplace.
     "The people we see who face foreclosure get so scared, they grab what they need and send the keys to the bank. There is tremendous panic and shame. Going into foreclosure has serious psychological ramifications for everyone involved," he said.
     Foley, the building inspector, said that despite the difficulty of the market, and worries of people who live near one - or several - foreclosed houses, Framingham homeowners should remember that the properties are a minute part of the town's "very stable" housing stock.
     Of the foreclosed properties on the books last week, about one-third were in some sort of negotiated transactions, though many at 30 to 50 percent less than their assessed value, he said.
     "That's a positive thing, that inventory is moving," Foley said. "I don't have a crystal ball. But there is interest that wasn't here four months ago, so I am very optimistic."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Fraud Prevention

     It's not always easy to spot con artists. They're smart, extremely persuasive, and aggressive. They invade your home by telephone and mail, advertise in well-known newspapers and magazines, and come to your door.

     Most people think they're too smart to fall for a scam. But con artists rob all kinds of people, from investment counselors and doctors to teenagers and elderly widows of billions of dollars every year. Just remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

You can protect yourself
     - Never give a caller your credit card, phone card, Social Security, or bank account number over the phone. It's illegal for telemarketers to ask for these numbers to verify a prize or gift.
     - Beware of 900 numbers. People who call 900 numbers to request instant credit often end up with a booklet on how to establish credit or a list of banks offering low-interest credit cards. Such calls can end up costing $50 or more, but consumers rarely end up obtaining credit.
     - Listen carefully to the name of a charity requesting money. Fraudulent charities often use names that sound like a reputable, well-known organization such as the American Cancer Association (instead of the American Cancer Society).
     - Ask for a financial report before you donate; a reputable charity will always send you one.
     - Investigate before you invest. Never make an investment with a stranger over the phone. Beware of promises that include the terms "get rich quick," or "a once in a lifetime opportunity."

Be a wise consumer
     - Don't buy health products or treatments that include: a promise for a quick and dramatic cure, testimonials, imprecise and nonmedical language, appeals to emotion instead of reason, or a single product that cures many ills. Quackery can delay an ill person from getting timely treatment.
     - Look closely at offers that come in the mail. Con artists often use official-looking forms and bold
graphics to lure victims. If you receive items in the mail that you didn't order, you are under no obligation to pay for them, throw them out, return them, or keep them.
     - Be suspicious of ads that promise quick cash working from your home. After you've paid for the supplies or a how-to book to get started, you often find there's no market for the product and there's no way to get your money back.
     - Beware of cheap home repair work that would otherwise be expensive, regardless of the reason given. The con artist may just do part of the work, use shoddy materials and untrained workers, or simply take your deposit and never return.
     - Use common sense in dealing with auto repairs. One mechanic convinced a woman that she needed to have the winter air in tires replaced with summer air! Get a written estimate, read it carefully, and never give the repair shop a blank check to fix everything.

Protect yourself from Telemarketing fraud
     Your best protection is to just hang up the phone. If you think that is rude, tell these callers politely that you are not interested, don't want to waste their time, and please don't call back and then hang up.

     If you find yourself caught up in a sales pitch, remember the federal government's Telemarketing Sales Rule.
     - You have to be told the name of the company, the fact that it is a sales call, and what's being sold. If a prize is being offered, you have to be told immediately that there is no purchase necessary to win.
     - If the caller says you've won a prize, you cannot be asked to pay anything for it. You can't even be required to pay shipping charges. If it is a sweepstakes, the caller must tell you how to enter without making a purchase.
     - You cannot be asked to pay in advance for services such as cleansing your credit record, finding you a loan, acquiring a prize they say you've won. You pay for services only if they're actually delivered.
     - You shouldn't be called before 8:00 am or after 9:00 pm. If you tell telemarketers not to call again, they can't. If they do, they have broken the law.
     - If you're guaranteed a refund, the caller has to tell you all the limitations.
     - Don't give telemarketers your credit card number, your bank account number, Social Security number, or authorize bank drafts.

If someone rips you off, take action
     - Report con games to the police, your city or State Consumer Protection Office, District Attorney's Office, or a consumer advocacy group.
     - If you suspect fraud, call the National Fraud Information Center at (800) 876-7060, 9:00 am - 5:30 pm EST.
     - Don't feel foolish. Reporting is vital. Very few frauds are reported, which leaves the con artists free to rob other people of their money and their trust.


Securing Your Home

      If you were locked out of your house, would you still be able to get in? Maybe you keep an unlocked window in the back, or a hidden key in your mailbox or on top of a window ledge? You may think this is a good idea, but guess what? If you can break in, so can a burglar!

     One out of ten homes will be burglarized this year. For a small amount of time and money you can make your home more secure and reduce your chances of being a victim. Many burglars will spend no longer than 60 seconds trying to break into a home. Good locks and good neighbors, who watch out for each other, can be big deterrents to burglars.

     Did you know that in almost half of all completed residential burglaries, thieves simply breezed in through unlocked doors or crawled through unlocked windows?

      - Make sure every external door has a sturdy, well-installed dead bolt lock. Key-in-the-knob locks alone are not enough.
     - Sliding glass doors can offer easy access if they are not properly secured. You can secure them by installing commercially available locks or putting a broomstick or dowel in the inside track to jam the door. To prevent the door being lifted off the track, drill a hole through the slide door frame and the fixed frame. Then insert a pin in the hole.
     - Lock double-hung windows with key locks or pin your windows by drilling a small hole into a 45 degree angle between the inner and outer frames, then insert a nail that can be removed. Secure basement windows with grilles or grates.
     - Instead of hiding keys around the outside of your home, give an extra key to a neighbor you trust.
     - When you move into a new house or apartment, re-key the locks.

     A lock on a flimsy door is about as effective as locking your car door but leaving the window down.

     - All outside doors should be metal or solid wood.
     - If your doors don't fit tightly in their frames, install weather stripping around them.
     - Install a peephole or wide angle viewer in all entry doors so you can see who is outside without opening the door. Door chains break easily and don't keep out intruders.

     Look at your house from the outside. Make sure you know the following tips.

     - Thieves hate bright lights. Install outside lights and keep them on at night.
     - Keep your yard clean. Prune back shrubbery so it doesn't hide doors or windows. Cut back tree limbs that a thief could use to climb to an upper-level window.
     - If you travel, create the illusion that you're at home by getting some timers that will turn lights on and off in different areas of your house throughout the evening. Lights burning 24 hours a day signal an empty house.
     - Leave shades, blinds, and curtains in normal positions. And don't let your mail pile up! Call the post office to stop delivery or have a neighbor pick it up.
     - Make a list of your valuables - VCRs, stereos, computers, jewelry. Take photos of the items, list their serial numbers and description. Check with law enforcement about engraving your valuables through Operation Identification.
     - Ask local law enforcement for a free home security survey.

     Alarms can be a good investment, especially if you have many valuables in your home, or live in an isolated area or one with a history of break-ins.

     - Check with several companies before you buy so you can decide what level of security fits your needs. Do business with an established company and check references before signing a contract
     - Learn how to use your system properly! Don't "cry wolf" by setting off false alarms. People will stop paying attention and you'll probably be fined.
     - Some less expensive options, a sound-detecting socket that plugs into a light fixture and makes the light flash when it detects certain noises, motion sensing outdoor lights that turn on when someone approaches, or lights with photo cells that turn on when it's dark and off when it's light.

     Burglars can commit rape, robbery, and assault if they are surprised by someone coming home or pick a home that is occupied.

     - If something looks questionable, a slit screen, a broken window or an open door, don't go in. Call the police from a neighbor's house or a public phone.
     - At night, if you think you hear someone breaking in, leave safely if you can, then call the police. If you can't leave, lock yourself in a room with a phone and call the police. If an intruder is in your room, pretend you are asleep.
     - Guns are responsible for many accidental deaths in the home every year. If you choose to own a gun, learn how to store it and use it safely.


Senior Safety

     As people grow older, their chances of being victims of crime decrease dramatically. But a lifetime of experience, coupled with the physical problems associated with aging, often make older Americans fearful.

     Though they're on the lookout constantly for physical attack and burglary, seniors are not as alert to frauds and con games; which, in reality, are the greatest crime threats to seniors' well being and trust. In order to conquer fear and prevent crime, it is important to take these common-sense precautions:

     - Go with friends or family, not alone.
     - Carry your purse close to your body, not dangling by the straps.   
     - Put a wallet in an inside coat or front pant's pocket.
     - Don't carry credit cards you don't need or large amounts of cash.
     - Use direct deposit for Social Security and other regular checks.
     - Whether you're a passenger or driver, keep car doors locked. Be particularly alert in parking lots and garages. Park near an entrance.
     - Sit close to the driver or near the exit while riding the bus, train, or subway.
     - If someone or something makes you uneasy, trust your instincts and leave.

     - Ask for photo identification from service or delivery people before letting them in. If you are the least bit worried, call the company to verify.
     - Don't fall for anything that sounds too good to be true; like a free vacation, sweepstakes prizes, cures for cancer and arthritis, or a low-risk, high-yield investment scheme.
     - Never give your credit card, phone card, Social Security, or bank account number to anyone over the phone. It's illegal for telemarketers to ask for these numbers to verify a prize or gift.
     - Don't let anyone rush you into signing anything like an insurance policy, a sales agreement, or a contract. Read it carefully and have someone you trust check it over.
     - Beware of individuals claiming to represent companies, consumer organizations, or government agencies that offer to recover lost money from fraudulent telemarketers for a fee.
     - If you're suspicious, check it out with the police, the Better Business Bureau, or local consumer protection office. Call the National Consumers League Fraud Information Center at (800) 876-7060.

 For information about Fire Safety for Seniors