‘Flopping’ scam enables fraudulent flipping in housing market

Although reports of mortgage fraud nationally fell 41 percent in 2010 from 2009, the continuing downturn in the housing market has fostered new ways of perpetrating it, experts say.

Consider “flopping” — the intentional misrepresentation of housing value for purposes of illegal flipping.

Here’s how it works: A real-estate agent or broker identifies properties with severely depressed values. These could be properties with mortgages that exceed the present values or they could be short sales or foreclosures.

A property is valued using a “broker price opinion.” The broker’s “opinion” is a lowball price, because his intention is to profit from a quick resale for a higher price.

A lender, believing the broker’s assessment is legitimate and unaware of any scheming, agrees to the lower sales price.

The broker buys it at the greatly reduced price, arranges for a “straw buyer” to purchase it, then flips it for a higher price than negotiated with the lender. The broker pockets the profits.

The broker pays off any of the participants that enabled the scheme, and then moves to the next target property.

Misrepresentation

“This is a misrepresentation of value,” said Denise James, co-author of an annual report on the topic by the LexisNexis Mortgage Asset Research Institute, during a recent teleconference.

She said such schemes could add to problems faced by regions with an abundance of distressed housing, since “lenders will grow concerned with false depreciation of values,” thus making the buying and selling of homes even more difficult in depressed housing markets.

“Flopping increases as desperation to get rid of rising inventory grows,” she said.

While reports of fraud by 600 lenders and other real-estate businesses to the LexisNexis mortgage institute declined year over year, “the decrease does not necessarily correlate to actual occurrences of (fraud), which are rising according to several industry sources,” James said.

Rising numbers

Suspected mortgage fraud submitted to the Federal Financial Crime Reporting Network rose 5 percent from 2009 to 2010, for example.

The list of crimes included short sales, bankruptcy abuse, debt-elimination scams, income and employment misrepresentation, Social Security number theft and loan-modification fraud.

Mortgage fraud has become more complex and is more difficult to verify, James said, because many lenders are trying to implement new procedures at the same time they are trying to recover huge financial losses.

Florida leads the list of states with high levels of fraud, with the institute’s index showing more than three times as many reports of fraud than legitimate mortgage originations.

One of the fastest-growing ways homeowners are being bilked is by people posing as the new servicers of their mortgages, she said.

“They (the homeowners) get letters saying, ‘I’m your new servicer. Send your payments to me,’ ” James said. “Homeowners who are not aware that there is a formal procedure involved in changing servicers” fall victim to this scam.

Source: By Alan Heavens, The Philadelphia Inquirer (6/10/2011)

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Rebuilding scores — if you ask

Some credit experts call it the best-kept secret in home-mortgage finance. Others say, so what?

Millions of Americans whose credit scores have declined in recent years because of economic stresses could start rebuilding their scores if their rent, utilities, cellphone, insurance and other monthly accounts were reported to the national credit bureaus.

But typically they are not, and as a consequence fail to show up as positive factors on credit-scoring systems such as FICO or VantageScore. These on-time payments essentially go to waste for consumers, even though monthly rents often can be as large as mortgage bills, and years of utilities and other payments are widely recognized as strong indicators of creditworthiness.

Now for the best-kept secret: Under federal law, these unreported accounts need not go to waste. You as a mortgage applicant are guaranteed the right to bring evidence of your unreported on-time payments to lenders, and they in turn are required to consider those records in making a decision on granting you a home loan — provided you request it. If a loan officer refuses, he or she could be open to legal penalties.

Though federal financial regulators generally acknowledge the right to present supplementary data that consumers enjoy under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, only one — the National Credit Union Administration — has published guidance informing lenders they are required to comply.

Factoring in so-called nontraditional credit accounts not only could provide important help to buyers and owners with recession-scarred scores but could also aid the estimated 35 million to 54 million consumers who don’t show up — or barely show up — in the files of Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the three national credit bureaus. Many of these are young people with so-called “thin” files with just a couple of credit accounts, and many are minorities.

So where’s the disconnect here? Why aren’t more consumers documenting their otherwise unreported monthly payments? And why are loan officers likely to stare at account records and say: Are you kidding? We only look at credit files.

The problem is complex. Almost no one in the consumer-finance field has paid much attention to the Federal Reserve’s “Regulation B” that interprets the rules on treatment of alternative credit. Lenders who know about it don’t want the hassles of sorting through “shoe box” records that may or may not be accurate. Major players in the mortgage market such as the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac all say they’ll accept alternative credit data but have restrictions on what they will consider. FHA, for example, does not permit applicants with low credit scores to boost them by adding positive, nontraditional data.

The credit industry is eager to incorporate accurate, nontraditional information but is ill-equipped to deal with sources that cannot provide large and regular amounts of verified reports.

“The [national] bureaus know that alternative data is highly predictive,” says Barrett Burns, CEO of VantageScore, a joint venture created by Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. “We think millions of people could benefit” if it were collected and loaded into scoreable files. Experian already collects positive rent-payment data on approximately 8 million units in large apartment complexes and incorporates the information into its scores, he said.

But Burns noted that the industry has had difficulty accessing information on utilities payments in some states, and collection of cellphone-account records has raised privacy issues. Without accurate information being available in large quantities, he said, it is difficult to assist large numbers of consumers.

Nonetheless, efforts are under way to mine unreported credit data — potentially the untapped shale gas of the mortgage market — and transform it into something useful. A private firm, Trycera Credit Services, has announced an agreement with the National Credit Reporting Association — a trade group representing companies that provide the merged credit-bureau reports and scores used by mortgage originators — to independently verify the accuracy of consumer-supplied payment records. Those records can then be provided to lenders as part of the standard credit reporting and scoring information used in mortgage underwriting.

Michael G. Nathans, president of Trycera Credit Services, says the project is just getting off the ground but that preliminary information is available at the company’s website, www.trycera.com. The service will cost $20 to verify rental and mortgage payments, $15 for other verifications. Trycera also offers Visa debit cards that can help consumers document their nontraditional credit payments in a scoreable format.

Of course there are no guarantees that lenders will accept your alternative credit data. But federal law requires them to at least “consider” it — if you ask.

Source: By Kenneth R. Harney, Syndicated Columnist

Mortgages, foreclosures top agenda at BofA meeting

Foreclosures and home-mortgage modifications took center stage at Bank of America annual meeting last week.

Outside the headquarters of the nation’s largest bank, protesters held signs and gave testimonials about their own foreclosure experiences.

At the meeting, which was held inside the bank’s new 32-story building adjacent to its headquarters, shareholders confronted CEO Brian Moynihan about mortgage woes in their communities.

The Rev. Clyde Ellis, a pastor from Virginia, said Bank of America should take responsibility for its role in the foreclosure crisis.

“Come to Prince William County and I will show you disaster,” Ellis said.

Losses and litigation related to foreclosures and poorly written mortgages have haunted Bank of America for several quarters. In its latest quarter, the bank’s income dropped 39 percent on higher costs related to mortgages and legal expenses.

At the end of the first quarter, the bank had $2 billion of foreclosed properties on its book, and its customers were late by 90 days or more on $24 billion of its total loans, which included commercial and residential properties.

Moynihan tried to separate the rest of the bank’s business from its mortgage woes. He described the company as being made up of two stories, with the mortgage business on one side and all its other business units on the other.

“The power of the franchise is held back by the mortgage challenges we face,” he said.

The bank’s stock is one of the worst performers of the S&P 500 index this year. Recently, the stock slid after the Federal Reserve rejected the bank’s capital plan and its request for a dividend increase.

BofA was the only bank among the country’s four largest that didn’t pass a stress test from the Fed. The central bank examined the 19 largest banks in the country to see if they were strong enough to withstand another economic downturn. BofA will submit a revised plan later this year.

Moynihan said the bank will pay dividends once it resolves more of its mortgage issues and submits a plan that is acceptable to regulators.

Some shareholders want the bank to scrutinize itself more closely. Michael Garland, who was representing several large public pension funds at the meeting, said he had written to BofA’s audit committee asking that it conduct an independent review of mortgages and foreclosures to show they conform with the laws.

Garland said that audit committees of other banks responded soon after he sent them a similar letter in January.

He said was disappointed that there had been no response from BofA’s audit committee until just five days before the annual meeting.

The plan didn’t get enough votes to pass on Wednesday.

“If this is your response to shareholders with a $1.3 billion stake in the company, I can only imagine how you treat your residential-mortgage customers,” said Garland, who was also representing the New York City Comptroller’s Office, which oversees the public pension funds of New York.

Source: By Pallavi Gogoi, Associated Press

In Time for Buying Season, Rates Reach Yearly Lows

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, a popular choice among buyers, sank even lower this week, matching its yearly low of 4.71 percent from January, reports Freddie Mac in its weekly mortgage market survey. Last year at this time, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 5 percent.

Meanwhile, the 15-year fixed-rate hit a new yearly low of 3.89 percent this week. Last week, the 15-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.97 percent. The 15-year rate averaged 4.36 percent last year at this time. It reached its lowest level on record in November when it averaged 3.57 percent.

The one-year adjustable-rate mortgage averaged 3.14 percent, down from last week’s 3.15 percent. Last year at this time, it averaged 4.07 percent.

“Weaker economic data reports reduced Treasury bond yields and allowed mortgage rates to drift lower for the third consecutive week,” says Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac’s chief economist.

Source: “30-Year Fixed-Rate Mortgage Matches Yearly Low of 4.71 Percent,” Freddie Mac (May 5, 2011)

Bailing on Mortgage Not a Good Idea

An estimated 11 million home owners owe more on their mortgage than their property is currently worth. That’s made more home owners consider walking away from their mortgage and home ownership, even those who can still comfortably afford to make their payments (known as “strategic default”).

Walking away from a mortgage usually results in either a short sale or foreclosure. So what are the consequences of walking away? There may be far more consequences than what most home owners ever considered.

The consequences include everything from badly affected credit to potential tax consequences and deficiency risks. There are even possible professional implications, Justin McHood with Academy Mortgage in Chandler, Ariz., warns in an article at Zillow.com.

Home owners’ credit scores will be badly hit regardless of whether they attempt a short sale or have their property foreclosed on. (See How Missed Mortgage Payments Hurt Credit Scores)

There also could be the potential for deficiency risks when walking away from a home, which largely varies from state to state. (View anti-deficiency laws by state.) In some states, lenders may sue you for the difference between what you owe and what your short-sale or foreclosure proceeds are, McHood notes.

Home owners considering walking away also should weigh the potential difficulty they may face from moving too. For example, if moving into a rental property, they’ll have to convince a landlord to rent to them after they have the red flag of missed mortgage payments on their credit record. And paying for moving expenses — which many walkaways fail to consider — can quickly add up too.

Plus, home owners may find professional consequences from walking away from a mortgage, as the number of employers eyeing employees’ credit profiles continues to grow.

Source: “The Consequence of Walking Away,”Zillow.com (April 27, 2011)

Contracts for home sales rose 5.1% in March; mortgage rates drop

WASHINGTON — More Americans signed contracts to buy homes in March, but sales were uneven across the country and were not strong enough to signal a rebound in housing.

Sales agreements for homes rose 5.1% last month to a reading of 94.1, according to the National Association of Realtors’ pending home sales index, released Thursday.

Signings are more than 20% above June, the low point of the housing bust. But the index is below 100, which is considered a healthy level.

Sales rose in every region but the Northeast.

Source: By AP, USA Today (April 29th, 2010)

Banks Rush to Revamp Foreclosure Rules

The rush is on for banks to meet a mid-June deadline in offering up plans on how they plan to meet a set of guidelines by U.S. regulators to clean up their foreclosure procedures. The banks will have another 60 days after that deadline to implement the changes.

As part of the rules set by U.S. regulators, 14 financial institutions will be required to provide a single point of contact to borrowers trying to modify a loan or in the foreclosure process as well as set “appropriate deadlines” for deciding whether borrowers can get a loan workout. Regulators are also requiring banks to ensure their staffing levels are on par to handle the flood of foreclosures and loan modifications.

Several banks have already taken steps to implement the changes.

For example, J.P. Morgan says it’s developing a software program to make it easier for employees and borrowers to track loan modification requests. It also has started providing borrowers with a “relationship manager” to help navigate the loan modification or foreclosure process.

Citigroup, which already provides a single point of contact, says in the next few months it’ll debut a “concierge” system that will provide a small team of employees to guide delinquent borrowers and home owners at risk of default.

Banks are also making efforts to speed up their loan modifications, after customers have complained of long delays from banks in responding to requests. For example, Los Angeles Neighborhood Housing Services says it takes an average of 141 days for its borrowers to get an answer on an initial loan modification request. Wells Fargo was found to have the fastest turnaround: Initial reviews averaged 79 days. But the bank says now 60 percent of its borrowers receive a decision five days after the company receives the request.

Banks are also increasing their staffing. J.P. Morgan has announced it’ll add up to 3,000 new home-lending jobs, and Bank of America plans to hire about 3,000 employees to focus on its troubled mortgages.

New Incentives From Fannie, Freddie

Banks and mortgage servicers also must meet new guidelines from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, announced this week, that aim for more loan modifications and prevent foreclosures from taking too long.

Mortgage servicers will be required to approach borrowers earlier, making contact frequently after just one missed payment.

The GSEs are also offering incentives: They’ll pay $1,600 in incentives depending on how quickly servicers complete a loan workout. They also will impose a $500 compensatory fee on servicers who do not complete loan modification applications within six months after the loan goes delinquent. The changes will go into effect in the second quarter.

Source: “Banks Rush to Improve Foreclosure Practices,” The Wall Street Journal (April 29, 2011)