Most real estate professionals are legitimate, but a dangerous margin of scam artists puts many home owners at risk.

It can sound like a dream come true, at least at first, and at least for some victims of a new scam. But when fake real estate companies conspire to essentially steal homes from people facing hard times, it's more like a home owner's worst nightmare. It's also more than law enforcement can handle.

It's too late for some victims, but it's not too late for you. These companies prey on desperate situations, and make promises that are too good to be true. If you're ever approached by a someone who offers to help resolve a mortgage that's in arrears or buy your property fast, the best advice is to walk the other way.

The Big Promise

Any homeowner faced with mortgage payments in arrears is already looking for help and hope. Add in people with other circumstances, such as poor health, medical bills or a family emergency, and looking for help can quickly turn into being desperate for it. These people are prime targets for criminals looking to exploit, and it's happening more and more often.

The promise is exactly what the homeowner needs to hear. Maybe the company representative promises to buy the house, clear up all past due payments, plus give the current owner a nice check. Or, according to the New York Times, maybe the company offers to help facilitate a refinance. However it begins, the ending is the same. The property deed ends up in the hands of someone else, and the current owner loses everything.

A reputable company offers reasonable solutions, not gifts.

How They Get Away with It

Scam artists are good at more than a few things. In this case, they're great at lying with a straight face and they hide behind the anonymity of their LLC business structure. Companies with names such as Jefferson Holding LLC and Homeowner Assistance Services of New York might sound legitimate, but these are two of a host of shell businesses making the lives of some New York homeowners and many law enforcement officials miserable.

These sham LLCs bob and weave and elude anyone that would identify the real people behind the shell. They meet with homeowners, promise them the world, forge signatures on deeds without the home owner's knowledge, and before law enforcement can home in, they're gone. It's difficult to catch a criminal when his office address is really a mailbox.

How Law Enforcement is Reacting

Law enforcement typically uses evidence and information to locate a criminal and then they find him and bring him in. That's not how it works when the real criminals are ghosts. LLCs aren't required to disclose owners in most areas. Local officials are trying to close windows of opportunity, such as requiring fingerprints of all notaries, but there are still plenty of cracks to slip through.

The volume of shell LLCs participating in this real estate scam and the number of scams they've carried out are overwhelming right now. In fraudulent deed transfers alone, officials are facing nearly 170 cases that look suspicious. Only 16 arrests have been made.

Criminals have always looked for vulnerable prey, and that's what makes this crime spree so abhorrent. People who need assistance and are in danger of losing their homes make perfect targets for others who lack any sort of conscience.

This doesn't have to happen to you. Regardless of your current situation, or that of a friend or family member, the best course of action is to check out anyone who offers mortgage assistance of any kind. If someone calls or knocks on your door out of the blue, assume that they are not legitimate.

If you do need help, look into one of the Making Home Affordable programs. These are organized by the federal government, and can help in a few different ways, from refinances to restructuring of existing loans.

And if you're interested in selling your home, eppraisal can connect you with a reputable real estate professional in your area. They can assist you with the whole process, from the first offer all the way to the closing table.