"Stealing Trust" Documentary Warns of Frauds, Scams in Maryland

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On Wednesday, April 18, Pi Sigma Alpha, the Political Science Honors Society at St. Mary’s, hosted a documentary called “Stealing Trust” at 6 p.m. in Cole Cinema. The documentary talked about frauds, scams, and financial abuse in Maryland through individual cases of local residents and victims of debt settlement, home foreclosure, and home improvement scams.

The first category, debt settlement, exposed fraudulent debt settlement companies claiming to reduce or eliminate their clients’ credit card debt. However, once the companies began to receive steady monthly checks for thousands of dollars, the companies would do little or nothing to help their customers.

Victims, such as Lee Tarner and Gloria Sownden of Baltimore, and Virginia Slater of North East, all turned to such companies in desperation, each in over $40,000 of debt. However, they found themselves in even more debt and in a worse credit situation after trusting the fraudulent companies.

The next category, foreclosures, includes victims who had been illegally evicted from their house or scammed by debt settlement companies promising to help close gaps on mortgage payments. Kevin Matthews, a Baltimore resident, was laid off in 2009, and used his final settlement from his employer to pay off his mortgage. However, after his bank did not review his paperwork legally, he was evicted from his home. In January of 2011, Matthews won a court appeal and moved back into his house.

Other victims, like Claretta Taylor, saw a commercial on TV for a company advertising to protect her from creditors and help with mortgage payments, however, the companies only robbed Taylor of thousands of dollars. “I put my trust and faith in him with no avail,” said Taylor. “I lost everything, only to find out it was a scam.” Though Taylor filed a law suit against the company, the man responsible for the scam only had to serve three and a half years in jail.

The last category, home improvement, involved cases in which clients approached contractors to complete work on their houses, but the contractors stopped working once homeowners put money down on the various projects. Since Maryland law states that contractors can ask for one third of the project’s cost up front and another one third of the cost once they begin work, contractors were able to find loopholes and scam homeowners like Jami Earnest of Crownsville and Eric Linton of Annapolis out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the movie, Marceline White, a representative from the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, stressed that consumer knowledge is important to avoid these scams. However, “consumer education is not the be all and end all because [company] regulation is important, too.”

“My favorite line of the documentary is from Claretta Taylor,” said Franz Schniederman, a representative from the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, who was present at the screening. “She said, ‘This didn’t happen to me because I didn’t care, it happened because I was vulnerable.’”

In the discussion after the movie, Schniederman also stressed four main principles that he believes will help eliminate the fraud and scams from happening: strong regulation of businesses, transparency or clear options for the consumer, clear contracts, and accountability and consequences for the fraudulent businesses.

According to Schniederman, the good news is that Maryland legislators have begun to take more action against the scams, as they’ve recently passed bills to tighten up laws within the three categories.

Seniors Kimmie Rouston and Emily Gershon both sponsored the screening as members of Pi Sigma Alpha.  According to Gershon, they decided to choose “Stealing Trust” because they “thought it was timely issue, especially to students that are vulnerable.  This movie is a warning to us all.”

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