There's a grim new twist to the wave of foreclosures ripping through Boston's poorest neighborhoods.
It's called the "rescue scam."
Hundreds of home and condo owners in Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan and Hyde Park are faced with losing their homes to foreclosure after signing on with high-interest-rate lenders.
Now, a cottage industry of shady small-time speculators has sprung up to target these struggling homeowners, neighborhood activists report.
One popular tactic: persuading a beleaguered homeowner faced with foreclosure to "temporarily" sign over his home in exchange for financial assistance. You can guess the rest.
Another ploy: offering to make some phone calls - to pull a few strings - on behalf of the homeowner with the lender. Of course, all that is needed is a few thousand dollars up front.
This new scam has caught the attention of Attorney General Martha Coakley's office, which has brought two rescue scammers to court and is exploring additional cases. Coakley's office is also researching legislation to crack down on these scammers.
There are now dozens of these "small-timer" operators in Boston and across Eastern Massachusetts, authorities estimate.
The trend is also troubling activists like Robert Pulster, executive director of ESAC, a nonprofit Jamaica Plain agency that counsels homeowners in trouble.
"They just become like red meat to the sharks," Pulster said. "They know they are desperate and they are going to take advantage of it."
Darlene Bowman can vouch for that. The 64-year-old Dorchester social worker got a firsthand look at this dark corner of the multibillion-dollar mortgage business.
And it was an experience she is not likely to forget soon.
Recovering from a back operation, Bowman ran into financial difficulty last year when she missed a payment on a $10,000 home-equity loan.
Her lender began foreclosure proceedings, with the notice, as required by law, published in the local newspapers. That seemingly obscure notice triggered an avalanche of unwanted attention.
Before Bowman knew it, her mailbox was being jammed full each day with dubious special offers from various lenders to get her out of her foreclosure jam. But the low point came when one purported savior took advantage of a slightly ajar front door and strolled right into Bowman's house.
With a bank robber's brazenness, he demanded $5,000 so he could "straighten" things out with her lender.
Bowman said he told her, "You have to talk to me. If you don't, you are going to lose your home."
When she refused, he went next door.
Soon her neighbor was urging her to call the broker, warning Bowman she would lose her home if she didn't. Her neighbor enrolled her niece in the pressure campaign.
But Bowman kept her head - and her home. She worked a reverse mortgage deal that allowed her to tap into the equity of her $400,000 home and pay down the debt.
"I never thought I would be so scared in my life," Bowman said. "I am supposed to be helping other people. I was almost suicidal."