By Viji Sundaram
New America Media
Anyone can become a target for scam artists, creditors and collection agencies, and end up losing all of their savings. But immigrants are especially vulnerable, according to Maeva Elise Brown, co-founder and executive director of the California non-profit organization Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA). The group provides free legal counseling for those who become, as one of their attorneys put it, “servants to their own debt.” New America Media health editor Viji Sundaram recently interviewed Brown.
Scam artists seemed to have a field day in the lead-up to the foreclosure crisis. Many of them targeted minority communities, for whom home ownership was the Holy Grail. Did HERA get involved in any of those cases?
We launched HERA 10 years ago when people started losing their homes to foreclosure. For a few years, that was the area we most litigated. But we gradually opened our doors to such other issues as student loans, auto loans, medical debt and identification theft—things that keep people from moving ahead.
It seems like immigrants are more likely to be defrauded when it comes to securing auto and other loans. Why do you think that is?
Mostly because they are linguistically and culturally isolated. Often, all rules are written in English, and that impacts many immigrant communities. But sometimes, you can speak English well and still not understand how our financial system works, allowing scammers to take advantage.
Graduating students in the United States carry huge debts from taking out student loans. What do students need to do to protect themselves against carrying this debt into their later years?
The average student graduates from college carrying a $27,000 debt. If it is a federal loan, more often than not private collection agencies are entrusted with recovering these loans, and there’s a lot of abuse that goes on during the process. One of the terrible things about student loans is that you can almost never get out of them by filing for bankruptcy.
But federal law allows you to get on an affordable payment plan, which few lenders will tell you about. And there are other federal programs available to reduce your debt. For example, you can get out of a student loan debt by doing 10 years of public service.
And federal law sometimes allows total discharge of debt if you’ve been lied to, like what recently happened to students of the Corinthian Colleges System in California. Nearly 70 percent of those students were minorities and low-income.
Almost 2 million people each year go bankrupt from unpaid medical bills. Sometimes even having health insurance doesn’t prevent you from financial hardship. Low-income people are sometimes afraid to go to a doctor because of this. How can they access health care services without breaking the bank?
Many people don’t know that non-profit hospitals have to provide a certain amount of charity care in order to maintain their non-profit status. Not all hospitals inform their indigent patients about this. Many immigrants are financially hurt by not being told this.
What is an example of a housing scam people might not be aware of?
We have won cases against collections agencies representing homeowners associations (HOAs). When you fall behind on your mortgage, you also fall behind on your HOA dues. A HOA is like a private government with very little oversight. You can lose your home for not paying your HOA dues. HOAs often hire collection agencies that try to illegally collect huge fees that the homeowner does not really owe and offer unaffordable payment plans designed to fail.
Most everyone knows that a low credit rating or bad credit report can curtail one’s lifestyle in many different ways. It even affects the interest rate you pay on a car loan. How does HERA help people build or correct their credit history?
Our attorneys help you access affordable financial products that help you build credit through a secured visa card, peer-to-peer lending and small business loans. These are all non-profit lenders who are reputable, and the fees and interest rates for the services are very small and reasonable.
Our “financial wellness workshops” that we’ve been holding in the counties of San Joaquin, Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano are designed to educate consumers of their rights. We are also launching these in San Mateo County.
This interview was produced as part of a media briefing on scams, sponsored by HERA