Beware of COVID-19 Foreclosure Rescue and Forbearance Assistance Scams
By Niayai Lavien
Many homeowners are facing increased financial hardships due to unemployment and COVID-19. Scammers are taking advantage of the current economic fallout of the pandemic and employing elaborate scams to trick homeowners out of their properties. Older adults and the economically disadvantaged are more likely to be targets of these abusive practices.
With the moratorium ending, consumers, especially homeowners, should know their options and learn how to prevent themselves from being scammed.
A foreclosure rescue scam is when a scammer tricks a homeowner into signing away ownership of their home for dramatically less than its current worth. Scammers often target homeowners who are in the middle of foreclosure by promising that they can stop a foreclosure from happening while hiding the fact that the homeowner is signing over title to the property.
Scammers search public records to prey on homeowners who are in danger of foreclosure through failure to pay property taxes, mortgage or homeowners association dues. They also look for older homeowners who have paid off their mortgage, but have trouble with the financial upkeep of their home.
Common abusive practices include:
Aggressive solicitation via phone, text message, mail and door hangers
Downplaying the value of the home
Pressure to sign a document or contract without the presence of a Realtor or attorney
Whatever the particular factors surrounding a homeowner’s situation, the scammer’s goal is to steal the home’s dollar while a person is in a high pressure situation.
Do’s and Don’ts of Foreclosure Scams:
Don’t → Fall for unsolicited offers to buy your home or help you sell your home without any cost.
Don’t → Make a decision regarding your home without getting a second opinion.
Don’t → Be pressured into signing any papers until you’ve talked with an attorney.
Do → Consult with a HUD approved counseling agency to talk about your options.
Do → Be wary of out-of-state law firms, organizations and groups offering to provide assistance.
Do → Contact Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s Consumer Protection Team for assistance at 704-376-1600.
Responding to Crisis: Marking One Year of COVID-19
Last March, few imagined that our community would still be grappling with the coronavirus pandemic a year later.
In many ways it seems the pandemic is nearing an end after this year of hardship and loss: vaccines for the virus are increasingly available, and cases have dropped to a point where North Carolina is easing activity restrictions.
But we are only just beginning to understand the extent to which this virus has driven our neighbors to the margins of safety, economic security and family stability, laying bare the extreme inequities that have long existed in our community.
Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy has spent the last year fighting for our community’s most vulnerable residents as COVID-19 upended daily life.
As we pass this milestone, we take stock of just how much we’ve fought to advance our mission of pursuing justice this past year.
It’s work we do every day and have always done in our 50+ years of service. But COVID-19 has cast a glaring spotlight on the importance of our mission.
Pursuing justice: It’s fairness under the law. It’s equal access. It’s meeting basic needs. And it’s making sure our neighbors are equipped to endure any crisis life throws their way, including a global pandemic.
Today and every day, we continue this hard, necessary work until our community is a stronger, more just and equitable place for ALL.
Over the past year we:
Addressed immediate issues related to agency closures in our local Department of Social Services (DSS), allowing for remote application for benefits and limiting terminations and state unemployment insurance systems to tackle issues stalling federal unemployment benefits.
Prevented illegal evictions and kept vulnerable populations safely housed.
Responded to critical needs for protective orders and intervention due to a sharp increase in domestic violence incidents while our courts were operating on a limited capacity.
Monitored the changes in Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance programs to ensure coverage is not disrupted for those who need them in our community.
Advocated for language and technological access on administrative applications for health, food and income benefits to ensure all who were entitled to assistance could receive it.
Assisted people who have lost their jobs and/or health insurance navigate Affordable Care Act health coverage options and Special Enrollment Periods (SEPs).
Ensured members of our community are not falling victim to COVID-19 related scams and losing their income.
Helped immigrant families understand the unique ways the pandemic impacts employment, housing, public resources, ICE activity and immigration courts.
Read on to learn more about the need for our services and our impact over the past year.
Meeting Exacerbated Needs
Days after the first cases were reported, we shifted to remote operations, equipping staff to continue our work as the need for help grew exponentially.
For our neighbors living on economic and health margins, the pandemic has further exacerbated their instability in extreme ways.
The need for our services before the pandemic:
More than two thirds of low-income households were experiencing at least one civil legal problem that significantly impacted daily life. These rates are much higher for survivors of domestic violence, immigrants, veterans, families, and parents of children with disabilities.
In Mecklenburg County, poverty, segregation, and income inequality have pushed residents to the sidelines, concentrating distress in family stability and fortifying barriers to economic opportunity.
Children born into poor families in Mecklenburg County are among the least likely in the U.S. to escape poverty.
Public agencies closed and delayed services just as newly unemployed individuals found themselves trying to piece together a semblance of stability navigating administrative and public benefits systems for the first time.
Those already depending on these systems (people with disabilities, children, seniors, veterans and their families) were desperate to prevent the illness, hunger and homelessness that could result from losing Medicaid, Food Stamps, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or other benefits.
The combined effects of racial, gender, ethnic, and other forms of bias create multiple barriers for people of color and women as they navigate institutions where entrenched disparities remain the status quo.
This clear intersectionality has yielded disproportionately negative impacts for people of color and women during the pandemic. Because of this reality, we have continued to identify and address systemic racism while fighting to ensure equal access to assistance.
When Mecklenburg County’s Department of Social Services (DSS) closed its offices to the public on March 18 with little notice, we fought to make sure our neighbors could still get benefits and services guaranteed to them under the law.
We made DSS agree to:
honor the date of phone calls as date of application for applicants to ensure they receive the maximum amounts of benefits allowed;
not terminate benefits for missed deadlines; and
allow late appeals, and to post clear signage in front of their buildings outlining this information.
The closure sent applicants to the agency’s call center which meant longer wait times for help.
We made sure people understood their eligibility for public benefits, helped them apply and navigate confusing administrative systems, all while ensuring their rights were protected. When programs and services changed, we kept the community informed.
We continue to advocate for extensions and flexibilities that are favorable to beneficiaries, while serving as a watchdog to ensure those policies are appropriately enforced and accessible to applicants of all backgrounds.
‘Things are smoother now.’
Like many of our neighbors, Melody was already struggling when COVID-19 turned her life upside down. We assisted her with various legal needs last year. Recently, we checked in to see how things are going for her and her family one year into the pandemic.
When someone contacts Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy for help, they are often struggling to stay afloat in a storm of crisis.
They have a big problem impacting their life but do not know how to fix it. Their problem is a symptom of various unmet legal needs that need to be addressed comprehensively to put that person on a better path.
As the primary financial support and caregiver for her family, she was trying to keep up with medical bills and fighting to keep her home as she faced foreclosure for unpaid property taxes from the mid-2000s left over from her parents’ estate.
The Advocacy Center had helped her negotiate a payment plan with the county that included forgiveness of a substantial portion of the debt.
“When the pandemic hit, I lost my job,” Melody says. “I was devastated. I thought, ‘How am I going to make those payments?’”
Melody is used to being the one helping others. But when it came to piecing together the support her family needed to remain stable, she could not do it alone.
Again, she called the Advocacy Center. We connected her with Legal Aid of North Carolina-Charlotte to help her get expanded unemployment benefits under the CARES Act to support her family.
“I’ve worked all my life and never needed any benefits,” Melody says. “I didn’t really know how that stuff went.”
As part of our work, we learned that Melody’s sister, Wendy’s social security benefits had been terminated despite her disability. The Advocacy Center stepped back in to ensure she was receiving the benefits she was entitled to.
We also helped Wendy apply for food stamps to help their family through this crisis. Melody would soon turn 65, so we also ensured everything was prepared for her to receive Medicare in a few short months.
We checked in with Melody recently to see how things are going for her and her family one year into the pandemic.
It’s been hard.
She’s lost eight family members to COVID-19. In addition to not being able to physically mourn with her loved ones, she’s missed the big family get togethers held every year—egg hunts at Easter and a family reunion in September.
Melody says one thing she’s learned through her experience is “it’s okay to ask for help and it’s okay to not be okay.”
She compares the past year to sailing through a storm and credits the staff at the Advocacy Center for guiding her to calmer waters.
“Just knowing I had them there, I was able to stay in my boat,” she says. “Things are smoother now.”
Despite the past year, she says she is still looking for the silver lining in everything.
She hopes to return to her job whipping up the daily special at Showmars in the City of Charlotte Government Center, where she had worked for 22 years. And she dreams of one day owning her own food truck.
In the meantime, she’s glad to have her health, her family cared for and a place to call if she needs help.
She smiles every time she drives by the Advocacy Center and Legal Aid office on Elizabeth Avenue.
“Look at how much work the people in that teeny little building do!” Melody says. “The work they do, it’s needed. Because sometimes people just need a helping hand. It’s been a blessing.”
Melody, we’re glad we could help. Call us if you need anything.
Before the pandemic, about 12 percent of Mecklenburg residents, including children, were considered food insecure according to Feeding America. The ongoing economic fallout has swollen that number to almost 16 percent who are on the brink of hunger.
In the last year, our staff assisted 371 people and their families with issues accessing food stamps (SNAP benefits), making sure they could successfully get the assistance they needed to remain stable and understood their eligibility for SNAP and other public benefits.
North Carolina was among the earliest adopters of Pandemic EBT (PEBT), which provides food support for families with children eligible for free or reduced-price meals while schools were closed. Though N.C. took many positive steps in creating this program, there have been hurdles and confusion in the implementation. We have been working closely with clients, partner organizations, and the state to monitor issues on the ground and communicate them to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to ensure the program works efficiently and families receive these critical benefits quickly.
Before the pandemic, one in six Americans had a civil legal problem that negatively impacted their health. We knew that unmet legal needs related to COVID-19 would dramatically worsen health outcomes.
Thirteen percent of Mecklenburg residents don’t have health coverage. More than 500,000 low-income people in N.C. have no options to get health care because they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to receive financial assistance for health insurance.
COVID-19 forced frontline workers to weigh the risks of working to keep their families stable with the chance of falling critically ill and needing to seek medical care they couldn’t afford. Others lost health insurance benefits with their jobs at a time when access to health care mattered most.
Many who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 did not realize they had the option to apply for health care coverage through a Healthcare Insurance Marketplace Special Enrollment Period (SEP) 60 days after losing coverage. Consequently, many went without it due to their inability to afford private insurance.
Johanna Parra, coordinator of the Advocacy Center’s Health Insurance Navigator Project, was among the first in the nation to discover another option for those who were desperate to get coverage and have peace of mind knowing they could get care if they needed it.
Because all 50 states were under the COVID-19 pandemic national emergency declaration, eligible individuals could apply for coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s Health Insurance Marketplace, also referred to as “Obamacare,” for a Special Enrollment Period through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA SEP).
Fighting for Equal Access
As soon as Congress passed the CARES Act to provide economic support and COVID-19 relief, there was confusion around the benefits included in the package.
Understanding the CARES Act and COVID Relief: Stimulus Payments and Unemployment Benefits
Families desperate for financial support needed help making sure they received stimulus checks (Economic Impact Payments) issued by the federal government.
Who was eligible? How would payments be distributed? What if payments didn’t arrive?
We answered these questions and more for our clients and the community to ensure everyone eligible for a payment could receive it.
Staff are now helping people address missing stimulus checks and other issues related to the CARES Act as people try to prepare their 2020 tax returns at a time when collection activities and massive job losses strain taxpayers. We are working to resolve these issues and push the IRS to offer specific remedies for various issues related to stimulus checks.
We are also working closely with clients and partner organizations to ensure the latest COVID-19 stimulus opportunities from the American Rescue Plan are understood and correctly received.
By May of last year, more than one million North Carolinians had applied for unemployment insurance benefits. The volume of applications paired with implementing new assistance programs under the federal CARES Act has caused significant delays, making the process more challenging for applicants.
Working together, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and Legal Aid of North Carolina-Charlotte answered the calls of thousands of frustrated workers to guide them through the application process and appeals. Through direct action and systemic advocacy, these organizations ensured that those who had fallen through the cracks had access to the full payments they deserved.
Prior to the pandemic and historically, North Carolina’s unemployment system made it difficult for eligible residents to receive unemployment benefits, leaving workers with little to no support.
Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is focused on removing some of these barriers by focusing on unemployment insurance system reform, essential worker benefits, living wages, and promoting workers’ rights in a right to work state—all of which disproportionately impact People of Color (POC).
We are also monitoring how scams and multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) target unemployed and low-income individuals, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.
NC Extra Credit Grant
Quick action and a strong partnership generated 24,946 applications submitted; $8 million distributed, in just 18 days.
On September 4, Gov. Roy Cooper announced the Extra Credit Grant: an additional $335 dollars in COVID-19 relief for N.C parents. While middle and high-income families automatically received the payment, low-income families had to apply through the North Carolina Department of Revenue (NCDOR).
These families had just 29 days to learn about the program and apply. Only 10,000 families did so during the initial application period.
Through a pro bono partnership, Legal Aid of North Carolina, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, and Robinson Bradshaw filed a complaint resulting in a court order on Nov.5, 2020 that reopened and extended the application period.
Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy created a website and extensive communication campaign entitled 335 for NC, which encouraged these parents to apply for the grant through December 7, 2020. More than 32,000 individuals visited the website.
In just 18 days, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, Legal Aid of North Carolina, and Robinson Bradshaw reached hundreds of thousands of families and delivered 24,946 applications to NCDOR resulting in more than $8 million in aid made available to families who needed it most.
Keeping Families Safe and Protected from Exploitation
State and federal moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures have been implemented and continued over the past year to keep people who couldn’t pay their bills safely housed during the pandemic, but they haven’t been enough to protect everyone.
As we watched infection rates rise, courts in North Carolina started working through backlogged foreclosures. Evictions began ramping up, exacerbating the shortage of affordable housing that existed well before the threat of coronavirus. Homeowners who had to take advantage of forbearance because they could not pay their mortgages will eventually have to repay extraordinary balances on their home loans, many of which cannot be modified.
The Advocacy Center continues to work with families desperate to keep their homes and stay current on their bills to avoid homelessness and financial ruin. We are making sure people understand their rights and obligations with lenders to help them make informed decisions about their situations. We are also educating the community to make sure our neighbors do not fall victim to scams related to COVID-19.
‘The weight that was lifted off’
Entrepreneur, grandmother, personal shopper, caregiver, and church activist. These are a few of the hats that Mrs. C wears on any given week. She keeps copious amounts of to-do lists to keep herself, her family, and her business in order, a skill she says she learned from the staff at Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.
“I kept their organizational skills, detail-oriented skills and people skills. It was a great learning experience.”
Mrs. C sought Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s assistance when a predatory mortgage company threatened to foreclose on her and her husband’s home.
“Raising grandkids, things got tight, but I also felt like I got hoodwinked into this mortgage. I had an anxiety attack.”
Mrs. C quickly connected with our Consumer Protection Unit which soon found out her mortgage company was fraudulent and under federal investigation. The Advocacy Center resolved Mrs. C’s issue and her family was able to keep her home.
“I cannot tell you the weight that was lifted off me when Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy jumped in like that and helped me right off the bat. It was a godsend. They worked with me on everything.”
Without the burden of potential foreclosure, Mrs. C can focus on growing her business and fostering her family:
“It’s peaceful now. I’m able to move forward. If only you could see the smile on my face! It’s a peaceful, peaceful smile.”
Immigrant families were already targets for exploitation before the pandemic. Fear of deportation, language barriers, and lack of traditional financial resources make it harder for immigrants to get assistance and leave them vulnerable.
Owners of substandard housing often rent to immigrants because the owners believe those tenants will be afraid to exercise their rights to habitable housing and to continued tenancy.
Traditional financing options are also often unavailable to immigrant families, which makes them easy targets for predatory financing options such as contracts for deed, options to purchase, installment sales contracts or lease with option contracts. These are enforced through eviction procedures and are complicated to defend without legal assistance.
Immigrants are also targeted for predatory sales of mobile homes, which can be substandard. These situations often involve predatory financing methods on land that is rented and are subject to eviction from the land, also requiring complicated defense.
The pandemic hit immigrants especially hard. Primary earners lost jobs as businesses shut down and those without legal status didn’t qualify for COVID-19 assistance.
“Because of the virus we lost our jobs and that put us behind on rent. And now it’s worse because my husband had an accident and our court date is tomorrow so we don’t know what we’re going to do … We don’t get help from anyone, those of us who are undocumented. A lot of us are going through this.”
– Advocacy Center client Ismar spoke to WFAE as her family faced eviction in July. Attorney Juan Hernandez was able to negotiate an agreement with the family’s landlord to prevent them from losing their home. Listen to the full story.
Thinking they could take advantage of families in desperate situations, landlords continued to threaten and illegally remove families from their homes.
At a time when our court system was operating on a limited capacity and resources for assistance were scarce, we helped our clients avoid homelessness, remain stable and exercise their rights.
We upheld their rights through our work, which included remedies such as cancellation of the contract, recovery of down payment or money paid above and beyond the fair market rental value, damages for unfair and deceptive trade practices, among others. We also conducted community education programs regarding the rights of immigrant renters related to their housing.
Domestic Violence Protection
While officials urged people to stay home to prevent spreading the virus, home wasn’t the safest option for many in our community.
Immigrant women also face additional barriers to escaping domestic violence or abuse, leaving them feeling trapped in abusive situations.
Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy helps low-income immigrants living in Mecklenburg County who are victims of domestic violence. A recent Allstate Foundation national survey found that 64 percent of Hispanic women say they know a victim of some type of abuse and 30 percent have personally been victimized.
Reports of domestic violence incidents increased significantly along with the need for legal assistance to get necessary protection early in the pandemic as people. Advocacy Center staff helped survivors and their families navigate administrative changes to get the protections they needed while our courts were closed.
Our Response Continues
We are all weathering the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat.
The past year has made it clear just how critical access to safety, security and stability is for everyone in our community.
But barriers that prevent equal access to these needs persist. And our current safety net is simply not wide or strong enough to support everyone who needs it.
Much like the Great Recession of 2008, the recovery for those hit hardest by COVID-19, those we serve, will take years. Some will never recover.
The need is everywhere. That’s why we’re here, fighting to help families not only stay afloat but also thrive. And we’re not going anywhere.
Today and every day, we continue this hard, necessary work until our community is a stronger, more just and equitable place for ALL.
Scammers are always looking to take advantage of unsuspecting victims, especially in times of uncertainty. The more you and loved ones know about scams, the easier it is to spot and avoid them.
Beware of Price Gouging
North Carolina is under a State of Emergency and price gouging laws are in effect:
It is illegal to charge excessive prices during an emergency. A price may be unreasonable if it exceeds the average price for the product or service during the preceding 60 days.
Contact NC Attorney General’s Office 1-877-5-NO-SCAM or file an online complaint
Tips to Avoid Scammers and Fraudsters
Be aware of COVID-19 vaccine scams. Everyone who wants a vaccine can have one and the vaccine will be free for most people. Learn more about COVID scams here.
Don’t answer or hang up on Robo-calls. Scammers are using robo-calls to pitch fake products, work-from-home schemes and insurance scams. Try to avoid answering the call at all – if it is someone you know they will leave you a voicemail.
Avoid false utility company representatives: Scammers are calling to dupe people out of their cash and personal information by convincing them their utilities will be shut off if they don’t pay. If you get a call from someone claiming to be your utility company, firmly tell them you will contact the utility company directly using the number on your bill or on the company’s website. Even if the caller insists you have a past due bill or your services will be shut off, never give banking information over the phone unless you place the call to a number you know is legitimate. Utility companies neither demand banking information by email or phone nor demand payment by gift cards (like iTunes or Amazon), cash reload cards (like MoneyPak, Vanilla, or Reloadit), or cryptocurrency (like Bitcoin), these are scams.
Avoid foreclosure rescue and “we buy homes” scams. Scammers search public records for homeowners in danger of property tax, mortgage, and HOA foreclosure. Never sign paperwork on the spot. Scammers often try to trick homeowners into signing away ownership by signing a deed or other legal documents without disclosing the true nature of the transaction.
Be on the alert for Debt-Relief Scams. Avoid companies or out-of-state lawyers that offer to help. Under North Carolina law, it is illegal to collect upfront fees for debt settlement services. Often these companies do nothing but put you further in debt and damage your credit.
Don’t pay someone in advance to help you access benefits. The government will not ask you to pay anything up front to get the stimulus money. No fees. No charges. No nothing. See our April 19 post about stimulus payments.
Avoid Social Security scams. The government will not call to ask for your Social Security number, bank account, or credit card number. Anyone who does is a scammer. Don’t “verify” your number or be scared into thinking your benefits are about to be suspended.
Watch out for phishing emails and texts about the coronavirus that appear to be from health officials, experts, or anyone else. Don’t open messages, click on links, or download attachments from senders you don’t recognize.
Be cautious of offers to help get groceries, do errands – there are a number of good Samaritans, but unfortunately there have also been reports of scams, money given, nothing delivered.
Beware of “person in need” and grandparent scams. Scammers pose as a grandchild, friend or relative stranded or otherwise in trouble and need money quickly and quietly. They may ask for money by mail or gift card. Don’t be pressured, hang up and call another relative or friend if you are still concerned to help you investigate.
The 66 undersigned community, civil rights, consumer, and student advocacy organizations thank you for taking swift action to pass the CARES Act to begin to grapple with the ongoing economic fallout caused by the coronavirus. However, much more must be done to ensure that student loan borrowers and the economy recover when this crisis ends. We urge you to include student debt cancellation in the next coronavirus package, and for those who will still have federal student debt, to extend suspension of those payments through March 2021.
We are concerned about the increasingly grim predictions we hear about the state of our economy. Without a comprehensive long-term solution, the CARES Act suspension of federal student loans for eighty percent of borrowers merely kicks the problem down the road to this fall, when jobless claims are predicted to exceed Great Depression-era levels, and the financial crisis will have severely deepened. The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, James Bullard, predicted the U.S. unemployment rate may hit 30% in the second quarter, a level five percent greater than was reached during the Great Depression. Goldman Sachs is projecting a record-breaking 24 percent drop in GDP for the second quarter of 2020, and that the world economy is expected to contract by 1 percent this year—which would be a greater worldwide contraction than the one following the 2008 financial crisis. And the downturn is expected to last well beyond this year: Morgan Stanley predicts that GDP in developed markets won’t return to pre-virus levels until the third quarter of 2021.
The student debt relief in the CARES Act fails to address this looming economic crisis. First, the six-month suspension on federally-held federal student loans leaves out an estimated one in five borrowers who owe on commercially-held FFEL loans or Perkins loans. Second, even for the eighty percent of borrowers who benefit from a six-month suspension, many will face the daunting prospect starting in October of choosing between paying for necessities including food, medical care, and rent, or making their student loan payment.
The next stimulus package must take the necessary steps to ensure economic recovery down the line: this means federal student debt cancellation, so the hardest hit don’t struggle, and an extended federal student loan payment suspension that is expanded to all borrowers to at least March 2021, so those who will continue to have payments will have more breathing room to get back on their feet. Without taking these additional steps, the CARES Act sets up millions of federal student loan borrowers to face the daunting prospect of trying to find the means to pay their student loans in the middle of economic devastation.
Cancelling federal student debt would bring impactful relief to 43 million Americans and their families. Loan cancellation would provide the greatest benefit to many struggling low-income borrowers who would likely see their debt extinguished. For those who would still have a balance, suspending payments until the end of the year would prevent them from facing yet another financial shock when the CARES Act federal student loan suspension expires in October. An extended payment suspension would enable many economically distressed borrowers to focus on recovering from a once-in-a-lifetime national emergency and free up extra dollars to inject into the economy. It would also strengthen the finances of student loan borrowers and their families over the long term by ensuring that tens of millions of borrowers come out of this crisis with lighter debt burdens.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating economic impact, it is crucially important to include student loan debt cancellation as a part of any economic stimulus. We support the proposals that Senate and House Democrats have put forward to cancel student debt by establishing a program to make principal and interest payments on outstanding federal student loans throughout the duration of this crisis. Such a program would ensure that loan balances go down throughout the duration of the crisis, putting millions of households in a better position to deal with the long-term economic fallout this crisis will create. We also support the Student Debt Emergency Relief Act by Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar to cancel a minimum of $30,000 in federal student loans.
Cancelling student debt would ensure that, come fall, borrowers are able to shoulder the ongoing costs of food, supplies, and medications if they, like many workers, face layoffs or smaller paychecks (due to reduced hours or slower business) because of the pandemic. And at a time when student loan servicers are shuttering call centers or reducing capacity, student loan cancellation would ensure there is less need for borrowers to take time out of their days to chase down their servicers and try and secure changes to, or help on, their student loans.
Reports show that cancelling student debt would also boost the economy for everyone in the medium-to-long term. It would boost GDP by up to $108 billion a year, and add up to 1.5 million jobs per year. Research by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that federal student debt cancellation increases borrowers’ incomes by about $3,000 over a three-year period.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States was facing a student debt crisis: outstanding student debt surpassed $1.6 trillion, over 9 million borrowers were in default on their federal student loans, and another borrower goes into default every 26 seconds. The burden of default falls particularly hard on communities of color. Black students must borrow at higher rates and in larger amounts due to racial inequities in incomes and wealth. Additionally, women hold two-thirds of the country’s student debt and on average borrow $3,000 more than men to attend college—yet because of the wealth and wage gap, women find it harder to repay their loans. Three million Americans over the age of 60 still have student debt. More than 40,000 people over 65 have their Social Security payments, tax refunds, or other government payments offset or garnished because they have fallen behind on their student loan payments. According to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) Snapshot report, older borrowers are more likely than those without outstanding student loans to report that they have skipped necessary health care needs such as prescription medicines, doctors’ visits, and dental care because they could not afford it.
Now more than ever, we must ensure that all people prioritize the health and economic wellbeing and that of their families and neighbors. Federal student debt cancellation is an essential factor in making that possible, and we strongly urge you to include this relief in the next COVID-19 package.
National organizations: Allied Progress American Federation of Teachers Americans for Financial Reform Association of Young Americans (AYA) Center for Digital Democracy Center for Economic Integrity Center for Justice & Democracy Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) Center for Responsible Lending Center for Survivor Agency and Justice Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) Economic Opportunity Institute The Education Trust EMPath Hildreth Institute NAACP National Association of Consumer Advocates National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA) National Center for Transgender Equality National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low-income clients) National Women’s Law Center The Midas Collaborative OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates Public Citizen Public Justice Center Public Law Center Student Action Student Borrower Protection Center Student Debt Crisis Young Invincibles
State and local groups: ACTION – Allied Communities of Tulsa Inspiring Our Neighborhoods Alaska PIRG Arkansans Against Abusive Payday Lending Arkansas Community Organizations Bucks County Women’s Advocacy Coalition Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy Convencion Bautista Hispana de Texas Delaware Community Reinvestment Action Council, Inc. East LA Community Corporation Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition Faith Action Network – Washington State Georgians Against Predatory Lending Habitat for Humanity of Anderson County, TN Just-A-Start Corporation Lawrence CommunityWorks Maine Center for Economic Policy Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance Michigan League for Public Policy Michigan Poverty Law Program Montana Organizing Project New Jersey Citizen Action New Jersey Tenants Organization PathWays PA Pennsylvania Council of Churches PHENOM (Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts) Project LIFT SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center Tennessee Citizen Action Tzedek DC Virginia Citizens Consumer Council VOICE OKC Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice WV Citizen Action Group
In general, North Carolina homeowners are still required to make their contractual monthly mortgage payments during the COVID-19 crisis and their regular property tax and homeowner association (HOA) assessments. However, there are a variety of ways a homeowner may be entitled to relief or assistance:
Carolina Mortgage, Property Tax and HOA foreclosure court hearings postponed:
N.C. foreclosure court hearings (Special Proceedings or Superior Court) are
continued for 30 days, until April 17, or later pursuant to a N.C. Supreme
Court Order. If you have a pending foreclosure, you should receive a notice in
the mail about the new court date. Open all mail and be sure to attend the next
Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, USDA, and HECM reverse mortgages have suspended
foreclosures for 60 days, generally through May 17, 2020. VA-backed mortgages may also comply with this
moratorium. Contact your mortgage
servicer about specifics and to learn whether your loan is federally backed.
on the current N.C. Supreme Court directives in place, if a foreclosure hearing
is held after April 15 but before May 17, the clerk will need some evidence at
the foreclosure hearing that the loan is not subject to the 60-day federal
moratorium before authorizing any sale.
court filing and case action deadlines extended in many situations. The N.C.
Supreme Court Ordered that documents and papers due to be filed, or actions
required to be done, in a case on or after March 16, 2020 shall be timely filed
if done by close of business on April 17, 2020.
of the Order extending case deadlines, any foreclosure sale that had not
finalized before March 16 will be held open for upset bids through April 17,
2020. It also appears that a homeowner
may be able to file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy to stop the foreclosure during this
sales based upon a prior order are not prohibited by the N.C. Supreme Court
Order but may be affected by the federal moratorium if the loan is a qualified
federal loan (see below).
most Mecklenburg County civil court hearings on foreclosures will be postponed,
the clerk’s office is currently open for filing between 9 a.m. and noon on
weekdays. Please exercise caution and do
not enter the courthouse if you are experiencing symptoms of illness.
whether your mortgage is federally backed or a private loan to learn about
federally backed mortgages, which include FHA (HUD), HECM reverse mortgages, VA
loans, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, FHFA, and USDA have suspended foreclosures and
evictions of borrowers after foreclosure until May 17, 2020.
If you are going to face hardship because of a job loss or otherwise during the COVID-19 crisis, contact your mortgage servicer about specific relief available, even if not federally backed.
Many private mortgage lenders will likely be offering assistance during this time. For both federal and private loans this may include:
Forbearance and payment relief programs (application and supporting documentation typically required);
Suspension of negative reporting to credit bureaus;
Waivers of penalties and late fees;
Mortgage modifications to reduce interest rates and monthly payments;
“Stranger Danger” is not enough! Seniors often lose money due to schemes involving family, friends, or caregivers.
Grandparent Scam – Someone calling on behalf of a child or other relative claims they need money immediately (usually via wire transfer or overnight courier).
Sweetheart Scam – A con artist begins a friendship or relationship with a senior, often incapacitated, to win over their trust.
Financial Exploitation – A person, usually a caregiver or loved one, takes the assets of another person without their knowledge or consent.
Adult daughter uses mom’s debit card to buy groceries – She spends $50 on groceries and $150 on clothes for herself.
Son forges his mom’s signature on checks to “help her out.”
Step-daughter takes keys of her step-father’s car while he’s in a nursing home recovering from a stroke and refuses to give the car back.
Nephew takes his uncle with dementia to a lawyer’s office to sign some documents – a power of attorney and deed transferring his house to the nephew.
Reduced livelihood: One could possibly lose a house, car, savings, pension, etc. due to actions of the abuser or creditors
Health Risks: One could lose Medicaid benefits and access to health care due to transfer of assets penalty
Loss of independence: A court could appoint a guardian if the exploited individual lacks capacity to make decisions.
Tips to protect yourself:
Discuss finances only with people you trust.
Ask financial institutions about fraud monitoring services.
Consider executing a Durable Power of Attorney
Appoint trustworthy person, who is capable of handling your affairs
Name alternates to your Power of Attorney
Do not hesitate to report any suspected exploitation to financial institutions, Adult Protective Services, and/or police
National Elder Fraud Hotline 1-833-372-8311 Adult Protective Services (APS) 704-336-CARE
Seniors Health Insurance Information Program (SHIIP) 1-855-408-1212
Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for Social Security 1-800-269-0271
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) 1-877-FTC-HELP
North Carolina Dept of Justice 1-877-5-NO-SCAM
Legal Aid of North Carolina 1-866-219-LANC
Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy
Protect Yourself This Tax Season
Tax season is also the season for scams targeting taxpayers. Understand the most common scams to protect yourself, your personal information and your finances.
This occurs when someone uses your personal information such as your Name, Social Security Number (SSN) or other personal identifying information, without your permission. It is often used by scammers to fraudulently file tax returns and claim refunds.
If you file a tax return and then receive a letter from IRS that another tax return was filed using your name, OR if you don’t file a tax return and then receive a letter that a tax return was filed using your name, the false tax filing could be due to identity theft.
Your identity could be stolen, or misused by a former
spouse, family member or business partner.
Phishing is usually carried out with unsolicited e-mails or fake websites to steal your personal and financial information. All you must do is click on false links and your personal information could be compromised.
Keep in mind, the IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by e-mail to request personal or financial information.
Some tax scammers also use snail mail; so be aware, when you receive regular mail that purports to be from the IRS too. If you are not sure, contact the IRS directly.
Tax Preparer Fraud
Keep in mind, as a taxpayer you are legally responsible for the information you represent on your tax return, even if the tax return is prepared by a third-party professional.
“Free Money” from the IRS
There is NO SUCH THING as “free money” from the IRS. Be skeptical of flyers and advertisements promising you “free money” from the IRS. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Charlotte was recovering from the Great Recession, which had destabilized thousands of people through job and home loss that eroded financial security.
As a result, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy saw the overall community need for legal assistance increase by 15%, including an overwhelming need from families facing foreclosure.
The Recession’s effects continued to be felt throughout the decade to shape our community, to define the issues of economic mobility and inequity we fight to address, and to steadily impact the people the Advocacy Center serves today.
As we mark the passing of a critical decade for Charlotte, we’re taking a look back at the work we’ve done to build a more just community for everyone in the Charlotte region.
Our name was Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, a name we had been operating under since 1978.
Number of staff: 19
Today we are Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy! In 2017, we changed our name and celebrated 50 years of service.
Number of staff: 50
Our new name reflects our commitment to providing both individual legal representation and systemic change to advance our mission of pursuing justice for those in need.
Growth to Address Systemic Problems in a Changing World
Since 2010, we’ve launched several projects to meet increased demand for assistance, creatively address the root causes of poverty and support our community’s most vulnerable populations, including:
Life altering decisions are made every day in our civil legal system that directly impact a person’s chance at a stable life and opportunity.
Despite the gravity of these decisions, no one is guaranteed legal representation in civil legal cases, leaving only those who can afford an attorney with true access to justice.
Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and legal service organizations across the country fight to provide equal justice for all in a legal system that is currently inaccessible for those who lack the money and resources to navigate it.
Federal funding for legal service organizations through the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) peaked in 2010. The funding increase was necessary to support legal service organizations assisting an increasing number of people while having lost key funding resources during the Recession. Funding has not increased since, despite the fact 25 percent more people qualify for legal assistance today than in 2007.
Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy does not receive LSC funding (learn why), but we advocate for sustained and increased funding for our partners that do, such as Legal Aid of North Carolina.
A 2014 impact report from the N.C. Equal Access to Justice Commission showed that 2.2 million North Carolinians qualified for civil legal aid services and 80 percent of civil legal needs of low-income people went unmet.
Affordable housing and protection from housing displacement
By 2010, the Advocacy Center was assisting families who were fighting foreclosure and trying to put their financial lives back together in the wake of the global financial crisis. When the housing crisis peaked in 2009, more than 12 million homeowners were experiencing negative equity across the U.S.
Today, the Advocacy Center helps families and communities navigate Charlotte’s affordable housing crisis as more people struggle to find and remain in affordable places to live. That assistance includes foreclosure prevention; defense against unfair and deceptive sales and purchases; property tax relief; and impact litigation on behalf of tenants to ensure safe and habitable housing conditions under N.C. law, including a class action lawsuit on behalf of residents of Lake Arbor Apartments.
Welcoming Immigrants into Our Community
Charlotte’s Immigration Court opened in 2008 to serve applicants from North and South Carolina. The Advocacy Center’s Immigrant Justice Program began serving applicants who could not afford legal assistance in the court, which quickly gained a reputation as one of the most hostile in the country.
With the Immigration Working Group, the Advocacy Center began the Immigration Assistance Project in 2010 to help unrepresented people in the court, providing consultation, education and referrals to assist them in court proceedings. Since its creation, it has been a vital legal resource to thousands of people that is not available in most immigration courts.
By 2014, violence and instability in Central America generated a wave of unaccompanied migrant children traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum, safety and reunification with family already living in the U.S.
The Advocacy Center launched the Safe Child Immigrant Project to ensure these children had an advocate.
Without our intervention, these children would have had not have had legal assistance to make their case for asylum, special immigrant juvenile status or other forms of relief they were entitled to receive.
Due to an overwhelming backlog, the first green cards from many of these cases were finally granted in 2018, allowing these children and their families to remain safely in the U.S. without fear of return to dangerous situations in their home countries.
This victory is a stark comparison to the current reality for thousands of children seeking relief at the U.S. border. They will not see the same outcome under current federal immigration enforcement, even though they have endured the same hardships and have the same valid claims for relief as these new green card recipients.
The Advocacy Center fought to maintain public benefits that stabilize families, while also ensuring access to them with increased demand for social support after the Recession, including SNAP benefits (food stamps) and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Today, the Advocacy Center is still fighting cuts and policies that destabilize families at the federal and state level, while helping families understand what is available under changing laws and policies.
Since 2018, the Advocacy Center has fought changes to the federal Public Charge rule to consider use of public benefits to determine approval for people seeking to immigrate to the U.S. or applying for a green card to become legal permanent residents. Confusion and fear surrounding the rule change has led local families who are eligible to receive public benefits to forego support out of fear. Federal courts halted the rule’s implementation in October 2019, and the Advocacy Center continues to monitor ongoing litigation.
Our Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic is educating N.C. taxpayers on new regulations stemming from federal tax reform passed in 2018, while continuing to help taxpayers protect themselves from scams and fraud.
In conjunction with a new state law changed the waiting period for expunging non-violent misdemeanor and felony criminal convictions in 2017, the Advocacy Center began helping Mecklenburg County residents apply for removal of non-violent, eligible offenses from their criminal records. This project sought to remove barriers to economic mobility that come with having a criminal record. In FY19, we assisted 217 people to expunge criminal records in N.C. and advocated for passage of expanded eligibility for expungements in the N.C. General Assembly.
In 2016, the Advocacy Center partnered with Central Piedmont Community College’s Single Stop program to provide legal assistance that helps students overcome barriers to their education and pursue economic opportunity. In the first two years, the partnership provided $72,855 in legal assistance while obtaining or preserving $103,462 in public benefits for students and their families.
Access to quality, affordable health care
The Advocacy Center has been litigating to ensure families have the health care they are entitled to receive under the law through major cases, including:
Pashby v. Cansler, later Pettigrew v. Brajer: The lawsuit, initially named Pashby v. Cansler, was filed in 2011 by the Advocacy Center, Disability Rights N.C. and the National Health Law Program, alleging that the state violated federal Medicaid law and the Americans with Disabilities Act by determining eligibility for personal care services under more restrictive criteria for people living at home than for those who live in institutional settings known as adult care homes. A settlement was reached in 2016, allowing vulnerable citizens who need health services to safely remain in their homes and have their services restored.
Pachas v. NCDHHS: The Advocacy Center brought the case on behalf of a terminally ill man, who had been the primary provider for his wife, two young daughters, and elderly in-laws. Pachas was trying to support his family on Social Security disability benefits before eventually qualifying for Medicaid benefits that covered his medical treatment for a stroke and a brain tumor. Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services determined Pachas’ income was above the federal poverty level based on the level of an individual, not for a family, and required him to pay a large deductible on his Medicaid benefits. In 2018, attorneys argued before the N.C. Court of Appeals that the state was violating federal Medicaid law in applying its definition of family size to determine eligibility for benefits. The N.C. Supreme Court heard arguments on the case in 2018 and unanimously ruled in favor of the Center to vacate the Court of Appeals ruling. The case is now with the Court of Appeals for a ruling on the merits of the case.
Hawkins v. Cohen: The Advocacy Center and the National Health Law Program filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2017 to stop illegal terminations of Medicaid benefits in North Carolina that resulted in a preliminary injunction and a certified class action. The improper actions included due process violations, failure to reasonably accommodate the disabled, and creating barriers to access for recipients with limited English proficiency. The class action is ongoing. As a result, the state changed its computer system earlier this year to stop Medicaid coverage from automatically terminating when a county worker does not timely complete a required eligibility review. Under this programming change, Medicaid coverage for more than 124,000 cases was extended in the past two months that would otherwise have been terminated without notice.
With the first open enrollment season for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Advocacy Center launched the Health Insurance Navigator project to help consumers understand their options and get the health care they needed under the new law.
Since 2013, we’ve helped thousands of people understand their options and get health coverage, while reducing the state’s uninsured rate. The navigator project has been recognized as a national model and received a visit from Sylvia Burwell, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, in 2015.
At the end of 2019, our health insurance navigators completed their seventh open enrollment season, helping residents in Cabarrus, Mecklenburg and Union counties understand their coverage options in a changing healthcare landscape to select health plan that meet their individual needs and budget.
The ACA included opportunity for states to expand their Medicaid programs and close the coverage gap for low-income people to insure all Americans. The Advocacy Center began advocating for expansion of the state’s Medicaid program in the N.C. General Assembly, which has failed to act. Expansion would insure an estimated 500,000 NC residents who make too little to afford private health coverage but too much to receive financial assistance paying for coverage. Expansion also would have lowered overall health costs for residents and spurred an estimated $2.9 billion in business growth by 2020.
Today we are still urging the N.C. General Assembly to expand Medicaid so that more residents have access to health care. Residents like Allan.
The N.C. General Assembly approved changes to the state’s Medicaid program in 2015 that privatized the administration of the program. The Advocacy Center has been working with providers and beneficiaries to make sure they understand what the change means and how to continue receiving health care. The Advocacy Center is also monitoring the change to ensure access under the law. The implementation of the new program was supposed to take place in fall 2019, but it has been delayed due to the legislature’s inability to pass a budget.
Protection from exploitation
To improve quality of life and ensure independence, the Advocacy Center has worked to empower seniors through education, legal representation and specific services that enable them to remain self-sufficient, their property unencumbered and their finances protected through the Legal Services for the Elderly program and other projects.
The Advocacy Center’s Consumer Protection program has continually worked to protect low-income people from scams and bad actors taking advantage of vulnerable groups who lack access to resources to understand their rights as consumers.
Immigrants have historically been targets for exploitation in our country. The current administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy toward immigrants who are undocumented has exacerbated their vulnerability and stoked fear in families, regardless of immigration status.
For 12 years, Mecklenburg County’s 287(g) program facilitated hundreds of deportations by assisting federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in implementing federal immigration enforcement at the local level. The voluntary program directed police to target, arrest and hold residents living in our community without a legal immigration status.
This practice tore families apart, made immigrants vulnerable targets and eroded trust of law enforcement, all while diverting local taxpayer funds away from public safety to enforce federal immigration policy, which is outside the jurisdiction of local law enforcement agencies. The Advocacy Center has long believed this policy has harmed our community by undermining public safety, depriving individuals of due process, wasting county resources, and exposing tax payers to potential legal settlements.
In 2018, the Advocacy Center fought against ICE presence in our courts after officials arrested a woman and her 16-year-old son at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, leaving her 2-year-old child behind in the court’s day care center as they took her into custody and placed her in deportation proceedings. This woman, Maria, and her son are survivors of domestic violence who were appearing for a hearing in their case.
The arrest became part of a national dialogue on how ICE activity in courthouses negatively impacts public safety and the ability for crime victims, especially victims of domestic violence, to seek justice.
The Charlotte Immigration Court later terminated her deportation case with the support of ICE, allowing Maria and her family to remain in the U.S. as they pursued a U-Visa, which provides protected status to victims of crime. The victory came after months of negotiation with ICE through the partnership of Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, Comunidad Colectiva and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.
In response to increased ICE activity since 2017, the Advocacy Center has partnered with community groups, including Action NC, Comunidad Colectiva, El Puente Hispano and the Latin American Coalition to help individuals understand their civil rights and provide emergency planning for families in the event of family separation through arrest and deportation.
A decade of justice
Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy has covered a lot of ground over the last 10 years, but the gap between access and justice remains wide.
In the decade ahead, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy remains committed to closing that gap by building a more just community where all are treated fairly and have access to legal representation to meet their basic needs and thrive.
In 2020 and beyond…
We will always fight to ensure
Access to our legal system
Affordable housing and protection from housing displacement
All feel welcome in our community
Access to quality, affordable health care
Protection from exploitation
While the means to accomplishing our mission will change with the needs of our community, our resolve to pursue justice for those in need remains constant. Because we believe …
justice lives here.
10 things to remember when buying a used car
Buying a used car can sometimes feel overwhelming. Consumer protection attorney Edward Byron lists the top 10 things to keep in mind when buying a used car.
Know the market value. Check resources at your local library or websites like kbb.com, nadaguides.com, or edmunds.com to find out the market value of the year, make, and model you want to buy before you visit the dealership
Research the dealership. Check out the dealership with the state Attorney General’s Office at 1-877-5-NO-SCAM or N.C. Department of Justice website. Also check your local Better Business Bureau before you go. Read reviews using websites like Google and Yelp.
Get pre-approved. Get pre-approved for a loan before you head to the dealership. That way, you’ll have a better idea of what kinds of cars you can afford and what interest rate you can qualify for. Be aware that dealerships may profit by charging you a higher interest rate than what you actually qualify for.
Price first, then the rest. Negotiate the price of the car before discussing the monthly payments or your trade-in’s value, otherwise you can be tricked into paying far more for the vehicle than it is worth.
Front-end add-ons like paint treatment, fabric finish, undercoating, appearance packages are very expensive and add little value to the car. If you agree to pay for them, make sure you get them.
Back-end add-ons like GAP insurance and service contracts may provide little coverage. Be sure you understand what is covered and what isn’t before you decide to buy.
Most used cars are sold “as-is.” This means that if the vehicle breaks down days after you buy it, there is usually very little that you can do. So, be sure to test drive the vehicle, inspect the car thoroughly, and consider taking the car to a mechanic and body shop that you trust before you buy.
Find out about the car’s history. Ask the dealership whether the car has ever been in an accident and get the answer in writing. Get a Carfax or AutoCheck vehicle history report.
Review the vehicle history disclosure statement. This document is required by law and shows if the car has been involved in a major accident or has been salvaged or flooded.
Always read contracts carefully before you sign them and make sure all written documents match what you’ve been promised. Never sign a document that you don’t understand or that has blanks to be filled in later.
Get a copy of all purchase and financing documents before you leave the dealership and keep them in a safe place (not in the car’s glove compartment, just in case the car is repossessed).
If you still have questions or you think you have been taken advantage of by a used car dealer, contact Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and ask to speak to someone in ourConsumer Protection Program.