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Protest of alleged loan modification scam goes nowhere

An elevator mishap adds to the frustration of homeowners gathered at the offices of Centre Legal, a company they say took their money but did nothing to help them.

March 26, 2009|Tiffany Hsu

Consumers trying to warn the public about so-called loan modification scams found themselves tripping an alarm of another sort Wednesday: About 15 of them got stuck in a Buena Park office building's elevator during a demonstration.

The failed protest was the latest in a string of tough breaks for a group of about 30 mostly elderly and Latino homeowners who gathered Wednesday outside the offices of a company called Centre Legal. Many of the demonstrators are about to lose their homes to foreclosure. Several had paid Centre Legal or one of its affiliates thousands of dollars to help them work out easier payment terms, but said they received nothing in return.

"It's a hideous situation," said 18-year-old Cynthia Sebastiani, whose parents, Luis and Amelia, said they paid the company $1,690 to make their mortgage more manageable. They're now on the verge of losing their Cypress home.

"At first [Centre Legal officials] were easy to reach," Sebastiani said. "Now, there's nothing there."

Indeed, when protesters entered the building, they found Centre Legal's fourth-floor offices empty. Neighboring tenants said the company's workers fled minutes earlier down a set of back stairs, perhaps tipped off by the gathering of homeowners in the parking lot.

Adding to the confusion, about half the group got stuck in the building's elevator, setting off an alarm that blared for nearly an hour before technicians managed to free them. The building owners pressed the demonstrators to pay the fee for fixing the elevator. Representatives of the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, which organized the protest, fended off that request.

A surge in home foreclosures nationwide has given rise to a host of companies claiming that, in exchange for hefty fees, they can help borrowers stay in their homes by lowering their interest rates and payments. Some of these firms have turned out to be scammers who take the money and run.

ACORN alleges that a number of Southern California homeowners have paid fees to Centre Legal but received nothing in return. ACORN said the company has also operated under the names Centro Legal, Modificate and Gigante Mortgage.

Calls to Gigante and one of its agents were not returned. Contact information for the three other company names could not be found.

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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