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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Le Francis Arnold, president of the California Association of Realtors spoke at an event held at a foreclosed home at 601 Jefferson Street in Bakersfield. The gathering was to announce a mortgage fraud task force.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Members of the Bakersfield Association of Realtors gathered at a foreclosed home at 601 Jefferson St. in Bakersfield to announce the formation of a new mortgage fraud task force. Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green spoke at the event.

Leaders of state and local Realtor organizations joined Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green on Tuesday to offer advice for avoiding home loan modification fraud and announce the formation of a new mortgage fraud task force.

The effort is part of an initiative the California Association of Realtors has launched to replicate statewide a program begun about six years ago by the Ventura County Coastal Association of Realtors.

The Ventura County Real Estate Fraud Advisory Team, or REFAT, is a collaboration between the Ventura County District Attorney's Real Estate Fraud Unit and area real estate professionals including agents, brokers, lenders and escrow and title companies. Representatives meet regularly to share information about suspicious activity in the local housing market. They also produce and disseminate educational materials and consumer alerts via a website: http://refat.org/.

Such an effort would be particularly useful here, said Scott Tobias, a broker with Prudential Tobias Realtors and president of the Bakersfield Association of Realtors. That's because the Bakersfield area has the fourth-highest mortgage fraud risk of any real estate market in the nation, according to an Agoura Hills company that assesses risk for lenders and investors.

"The housing crisis has hit Kern County particularly hard, which is why we're here today to share this message," Tobias said at a news conference in front of a foreclosed northeast Bakersfield home on the corner of Jefferson and Kern streets.

Tobias said he didn't have specifics on precisely how the Bakersfield fraud task force would be set up or who would be on it. "It's still really early in the planning stages," he said.

But prosecutor Green said her office is anxious to help in any way it can.

Crooks are preying on desperate homeowners trying to keep their homes out of foreclosure, she said.

That's "not only wrong, but it's a crime, and my office will do everything it can to prosecute scam artists for these crimes," Green said.

Too often, victims don't report fraud because either they're embarrassed or they don't know who to tell, she said. If anyone in Kern County has been targeted, Green said, "The District Attorney's office wants to know."

California Association of Realtors President LeFrancis Arnold offered some tips to avoid being scammed in loan modification fraud. Beware, he said, if anyone:

* asks for money upfront before providing any service,

* instructs you not to contact your lender, lawyer, housing counselor, family, friends or others,

* asks for mortgage payments to be made directly to them rather than to your lender,

* requires payment only in the form of cash, cashier's check or wire transfer,

* advises you to transfer your property deed or title to his or her company,

* offers to fill out paperwork for you,

* asks for something to be done immediately before you've had a chance to read through it and understand it thoroughly,

* encourages you to lease your house and buy it back over time,

* offers to buy your house for a fixed price that is not set by the housing market at the time of the sale,

* asks you to give them power of attorney,

* asks for signatures on a grant deed or deed of trust, or on documents with lines left blank,

* fails to provide copies of signed documents,

* or refuses or fails to put an oral promise in writing.

"Remember the age old saying, 'if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,'" Arnold said.