While you may think you understand the homebuying process, predatory lenders and scam artists are constantly introducing new schemes that can threaten your financial future.
Many of these scams target homebuyers who are about to close on their mortgages or may be struggling financially.
Though lending practices are now under much more scrutiny due to the housing market crash a decade ago, this only motivates predatory lenders and scam artists to be that much sneakier in duping borrowers.
With plenty of homeowners still facing mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures these days, it also means there are plenty of opportunities for scammers to try. Staying aware of these mortgage scams will help you identify them and avoid danger.
Phishing tends to target those who are already in the closing process of their mortgages. Using information they already know about you, the thief will send you an email posing as your mortgage company or real estate agent. For example, one message may claim there's been a last-minute change and will instruct you to wire your closing costs to a different account. If you follow through, the money goes into the scammer's account within minutes, with little hope of recovery.
Real estate agents and legitimate mortgage lenders don't send such instructions via email—they'd call you instead. If you do get an email that requests unusual money transfers or changes existing plans, do not click any links or approve any wire transfers until you've contacted your real estate or mortgage company. Otherwise, you could lose tens of thousands of dollars.
Bait and Switch Offers
While tighter regulations and falling rates have made bait-and-switch tactics much more rare in mortgage lending, this year's rising mortgage rate trend means you may need to stay wary. Lenders who bait and switch will claim to offer extremely low mortgage rates, only to raise the rate estimates later on in the loan process. The most unscrupulous companies will wait to spring the trap as late as possible, making it difficult for a committed buyer to back away.
Victims of this practice usually feel that declining will hurt their chances of buying a home or that it's too late to fix the situation. However, requesting formal documentation and getting a rate lock easily eliminates the possibility of a successful bait and switch. You can request a rate lock once you have a purchase agreement with the seller and provide the lender with your financial details. If a lender seems reluctant to grant you a rate lock at that point, it's possible you're in a bait-and-switch situation.
Hijacking Monthly Payments
Many lenders sell the mortgages they originate to investors and other banks. Scammers take advantage of this by creating fake mortgage companies and posing as the new owners of your loan. They'll send you a letter introducing themselves and instruct you to forward your monthly payments to them. The worst part about this scenario is that many victims don't catch on until their real mortgage servicer notifies them that they're behind on their actual payments.
When your current mortgage provider sells your loan, you should receive two letters: one from your existing loan company informing you of the transfer and disclosing the new company's information, and one from the new company introducing itself. If you're ever unsure of what is happening, call up your original mortgage company using contact information from previous communications. Don't rely on the contact information from the letter in question—those details could be falsified.
Fake Mortgage Relief Programs
Fraudulent lenders also exploit the myriad government-sponsored loan modification programs. These legitimate programs help homeowners who are struggling to pay their mortgages. Scammers know this and prey on those who are in this situation by creating fake loan programs and urging you to refinance with them. These companies seem like a saving grace when you're facing foreclosure or late payments.
These fake companies contact you and reference these government-sponsored programs like the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) as part of an offer to help you. In exchange for mortgage relief, they'll ask you to pay administrative fees to cover the cost of making calls and completing forms on your behalf. As HARP points out, real help is free—any offer of mortgage relief assistance that costs you money is either a bad deal or a scam.
How You Can Protect Yourself
Strict regulations on the mortgage industry have greatly reduced the frequency of fraud in recent years, but there are a few basic practices you should still follow. You should be suspicious of any mortgage companies that approach you out of the blue with cold calls, fliers or even door-to-door visits. Any email you receive that asks for your financial information or directs to you an alternative payment option should be reported to your actual lender. Simply being aware of the red flags and doing your due diligence can help you avoid many of the mortgage scams out there.
Maxime Rieman is Product Manager at ValuePenguin. Educating and assisting shoppers about financial products has been Rieman's focus, which led her to joining ValuePenguin, a consumer research and advice company based in New York. Previously, she was product marketing director at CoverWallet and launched the personal insurance team at NerdWallet.
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