Mortgage fraud is not victimless

mortgage fraud
Mortgage fraud (infographic from corelogic.com)

Since the foreclosure crisis, there have been many enhancements to the mortgage process to deter fraud.  Some of these changes include licensing of loan officers and indicating the license on government loans, choosing appraisers randomly, and limiting who can speak with appraisers.  Fraud detection before and after settlement has also been improved to thwart criminals.  But even with modern advancements, mortgage fraud has been trending upward.

Mortgage fraud schemes are increasingly sophisticated.  You may think that that those who are involved in mortgage fraud are career criminals operating in remote areas.  However, anyone can knowingly or unknowingly be involved, including real estate agents, attorneys, loan officers, appraisers, etc.  And it can happen anywhere, even in your neighborhood.  Where are is the most fraud trending? CoreLogic (corelogic.com) tracks fraud risk, and an interactive map can be found here.

Innocent consumers can get caught up in a mortgage fraud scheme too.  Historically, home flipping schemes were the traps where unwitting home buyers would get cheated.  However, since the foreclosure crises, distressed home owners have been a major target of mortgage modification scams.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (fbi.gov) maintains that mortgage fraud is typically a material misstatement, misrepresentation, or omission in relation to getting a loan.  It is also considered fraud to lie to influence a bank’s decision to approve a loan and/or to get favorable loan terms.  The information you provide for your mortgage application should truthful.  Even indicating falsely that you will be occupying the property after settlement to get a better interest rate, when your intention is to use it as a rental property, is mortgage fraud.

After the mortgage crisis, the FBI (and other law enforcement agencies) broadened the scope of mortgage fraud to include frauds targeting distressed home owners.

A recent conviction of local fraudsters detailed such a scheme.  The co-conspirators claimed that they could help home owners modify mortgages and prevent foreclosure.  Evidence presented during their trial showed that the scammers charged their victims upfront and monthly fees that were to be used to pay down mortgages as part of a “principal reduction” plan.  Even though the victims received monthly invoices from the scammers showing their mortgage balances being paid down, there were no negotiations with lenders.  Many victims lost their homes.  The defendants will be sentenced later this year.

One of the most common tactics in mortgage fraud schemes is the use of a “straw buyer.”  A straw buyer is often used by con artists as part of their mortgage fraud scheme to make the transaction appear legitimate.  Although a straw buyer often knowingly consents to the use of their information to go along with the scheme, they are also sometimes the victim.  A Baltimore real estate agent was sentenced earlier this year to twenty-seven months in prison, ordered to pay $735,363.47 restitution, as well as forfeit $962,274.95 for his part of a mortgage fraud scheme.  The scheme used naïve and financially limited straw buyers to purchase renovated distressed properties at inflated prices, which the scammers profited.  To facilitate the loan process, the conspirators gave false information to loan officers including the intent of buyers to use the property as their primary residence.

Mortgage fraud is not a victimless crime.  Besides defrauding banks and their shareholders, mortgage fraud affects the neighborhood and community.  Unwitting consumers who have been caught in scams are usually left holding the bag and are foreclosed.  Residents of neighborhoods where mortgage fraud has occurred are affected by decreased home values and other effects of vacant and foreclosed homes.

Common mortgage fraud schemes listed by the FBI:

Foreclosure rescue schemes: The perpetrators identify homeowners who are in foreclosure or at risk of defaulting on their mortgage loan and then mislead them into believing they can save their homes by transferring the deed or putting the property in the name of an investor. The perpetrators profit by selling the property to an investor or straw borrower, creating equity using a fraudulent appraisal, and stealing the seller proceeds or fees paid by the homeowners. The homeowners are sometimes told they can pay rent for at least a year and repurchase the property once their credit has been reestablished. However, the perpetrators fail to make the mortgage payments and usually the property goes into foreclosure.

Loan modification schemes: Similar to foreclosure rescue scams, these schemes involve perpetrators purporting to assist homeowners who are delinquent in their mortgage payments and are on the verge of losing their home by offering to renegotiate the terms of the homeowners’ loan with the lender. The scammers, however, demand large fees up front and often negotiate unfavorable terms for the clients, or do not negotiate at all. Usually, the homeowners ultimately lose their homes.

Illegal property flipping: Property is purchased, falsely appraised at a higher value, and then quickly sold. What makes property flipping illegal is the fraudulent appraisal information or false information provided during the transactions. The schemes typically involve one or more of the following: fraudulent appraisals; falsified loan documentation; inflated buyer income; or kickbacks to buyers, investors, property/loan brokers, appraisers, and title company employees.

Builder bailout/condo conversion: Builders facing rising inventory and declining demand for newly constructed homes employ bailout schemes to offset losses. Builders find buyers who obtain loans for the properties but who then allow the properties to go into foreclosure. In a condo conversion scheme, apartment complexes purchased by developers during a housing boom are converted into condos, and in a declining real estate market, developers often have excess inventory of units. So developers recruit straw buyers with cash-back incentives and inflate the value of the condos to obtain a larger sales price at closing. In addition to failing to disclose the cash-back incentives to the lender, the straw buyers’ income and asset information are often inflated in order for them to qualify for properties that they otherwise would be ineligible or unqualified to purchase.

Equity skimming: An investor may use a straw buyer, false income documents, and false credit reports to obtain a mortgage loan in the straw buyer’s name. Subsequent to closing, the straw buyer signs the property over to the investor in a quit claim deed, which relinquishes all rights to the property and provides no guaranty to title. The investor does not make any mortgage payments and rents the property until foreclosure takes place several months later.

Silent second: The buyer of a property borrows the down payment from the seller through the issuance of a non-disclosed second mortgage. The primary lender believes the borrower has invested his own money in the down payment, when in fact, it is borrowed. The second mortgage may not be recorded to further conceal its status from the primary lender.

Home equity conversion mortgage (HECM): A HECM is a reverse mortgage loan product insured by the Federal Housing Administration to borrowers who are 62 years or older, own their own property (or have a small mortgage balance), occupy the property as their primary residence, and participate in HECM counseling. It provides homeowners access to equity in their homes, usually in a lump sum payment. Perpetrators taking advantage of the HECM program recruit seniors through local churches, investment seminars, and television, radio, billboard, and mailer advertisements. The scammers then obtain a HECM in the name of the recruited homeowner to convert equity in the homes into cash. The scammers keep the cash and pay a fee to the senior citizen or take the full amount unbeknownst to the senior citizen. No loan payment or repayment is required until the borrower no longer uses the house as a primary residence. In the scheme, the appraisals on the home are vastly inflated and the lender does not detect the fraud until the homeowner dies and the true value of the property is discovered.

Commercial real estate loans: Owners of distressed commercial real estate (or those acting on their behalf) obtain financing by manipulating the property’s appraised value. Bogus leases may be created to exaggerate the building’s profitability, thus inflating the value as determined using the ‘income method’ for property valuation. Fraudulent appraisals trick lenders into extending loans to the owner. As cash flows are lower than stated, the borrower struggles to maintain the property and repairs are neglected. By the time the commercial loans are in default, the lender is often left with dilapidated or difficult-to-rent commercial property. Many of the methods of committing mortgage fraud that are found in residential real estate are also present in commercial loan fraud.

Air loans: This is a nonexistent property loan where there is usually no collateral. Air loans involve brokers who invent borrowers and properties, establish accounts for payments, and maintain custodial accounts for escrows. They may establish an office with a bank of telephones, each one used as the fake employer, appraiser, credit agency, etc., to fraudulently deceive creditors who attempt to verify information on loan applications.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.

Violent crime effects home values

violent crime and home values
Crime in the US (infographic from infographicsarchive.com and supercircuits.com)

Last week’s horrific and violent crime has propelled our Montgomery County MD community, specifically Rockville, into the national spotlight.  And like other communities that have experienced violent crimes, residents will be asking questions long after the spotlight dims.  Unfortunately, the aftermath of violent crimes not only leaves a psychological scar on the community, it also affects home values.

Of course, it’s intuitive to think that home values are affected by violent crime.  You might ask, how can such a violent act that occurred last week not be in the minds of prospective home buyers?  And as you will see in the research below, violent crime will also compel some home owners to move.

A 2009 study by John Hipp, George Tita and Robert Greenbaum sought to determine the interrelationship between crime and “residential mobility” (Drive-Bys and Trade-Ups: Examining the Directionality of the Crime and Residential Instability Relationship; Social Forces; 2009, Vol. 87, No. 4, pp.1777-1812).  The findings revealed that although there is no evidence that a year with a high number of home sales increases violent crimes, they found direct evidence that a year with a high number of violent crimes will increase home sales during the ensuing year.  The same holds true for property crimes, where a high number of home sales do not lead to increased property crimes, however a high number of property crimes will increase the number of home sales the following year.  They also found evidence of a downward trend in home values following a year of high violent crime.  The authors of the study concluded that households basically respond to crime by moving.  Additionally, many home buyers not only take crime stats into account, but likely consider recent high profile crimes when deciding on a home.

They also found evidence of a downward trend in home values following a year of high violent crime.

There are decades of research on the effects of violent crime on property values.  For example, an influential article by Sheila Little published in 1988 discussed an appraiser’s duty to consider violent crime when determining property value (Effects of Violent Crimes on Residential Property Values; Appraisal Journal; 1988, Vol. 56,No. 3, p341-343).  She stated; “It is part of appraisers’ responsibilities to make an effort to ascertain the effects of violent crimes on market value of properties.”

Fortunately, communities heal.  However, it’s not easy and certainly not immediate; as evidenced by the research of George Galster, Jackie Cutsingerm and Up Lim.  They studied how five US cities responded to “exogenous shock,” such as violent crime (Are Neighbourhoods Self-stabilising? Exploring Endogenous Dynamics; Urban Studies; 2007, Vol 44, No.1, pp. 167-185).  They concluded that communities have a “self-regulating adjustment” mechanism that help them adjust and stabilize after various external shocks.  Although an increase in violent and property crime will elicit a community’s self-regulation mechanism; stabilization takes “considerably longer” than other external shocks, especially when the shock to the community is substantial.

Galster, Cutsingerm, and Lim rhetorically ask how the self-correcting mechanism functions; how does it adjust and stabilize a communityThey propose that there are social, economic, and/or political reactions to shocks such as violent crime.  They surmise these reactions are manifested as a “powerful momentum” within communities.

Our community’s self-regulating mechanism has already been deployed, as demonstrated by the intense parent and community involvement in Rockville, asking questions and seeking change.  And you can expect a “powerful momentum,” as described above, for change.  The resulting social, economic, and/or political change will limit the effects of such violent crimes on home values, and demonstrates why Montgomery County MD continues to be the residence of choice for many home buyers.

Copyright © Dan Krell
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Real estate, a dangerous profession

Bethesda Real EstateIf you asked anyone on the street to name the top dangerous professions, “real estate agent” is not usually considered. But the recent murder of Arkansas Realtor® Beverly Carter highlights, once again, the dangers of selling homes. Carter went missing in September after she planned to show a house, and her body was later found in a rural area.

Although the details of the murder is yet to be revealed, it feels reminiscent of the 2010 murders of two Ohio real estate agents killed in separate incidents within the same week. Vivian Martin was found on the floor of burning home, Martin’s death was found to be by strangulation. Andrew VonStein, was found shot in a vacant home (usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-09-22-real-estate-agents-ohio_N.htm).

Dealing with the public on a daily basis puts real estate agents in contact with a wide range of personalities and potentially dangerous situations. And although reports of general crime may not grab our attention until we hear about a life being taken prematurely, other daily dangers that agents may face can include stalking, robbery, assault, and rape.

Here are a just few reports from this year:

Over the summer, a Pennsylvania real estate agent was allegedly carjacked at gunpoint, then allegedly sexually assaulted and forced to stay in back seat. While the alleged assailants drove her SUV, it lost control and ran into pedestrians a fruit stand. Two Philadelphia men were charged with the deaths of three children and their mother, as well as the kidnapping, aggravated assault and sexual assault of the real estate agent (cnn.com/2014/08/08/us/philadelphia-carjacking).

The Charlotte Observer reported May 14th that a man was arrested and charged with rape, attempted rape, felonious restraint and kidnapping, and two counts of sexual assault. Police stated that the alleged assailant arranged to view a number of homes with the real estate agent the day before they met. The two drove together, and while in the first home the agent was choked and was threatened to be killed with a knife lest she comply. The agent was sexually assaulted in the home; the alleged attacker ordered her to take him to the second home, where she was assaulted again (charlotteobserver.com/2014/05/14/4910501/realty-firms-re-emphasize-safety.html).

Earlier this year, ABC-7 WJLA reported that a Maryland agent was robbed in a New Carrolton home.   Police stated that a man followed the agent into the vacant home, when a purse and other items were taken by threat of an alleged weapon (wjla.com/articles/2014/03/real-estate-agent-robbed-in-vacant-maryland-home-101466.html).

A recent story out of Arizona (kpho.com/story/25186878/foot-fetish-predator-targets-valley-real-estate-agents) tells of a buyer texting female real estate agents to see a home. Seemingly innocent, the would-be buyer would initially text the agents about a house listed for sale; however, quickly changing the topic to the agents’ feet and foot wear. As bizarre as this story may sound, one of the affected agents seemed to think that this foot-fetish pervert was harmless; she stated to in this CBS-5 KPHO story, “You very much have to trust your instincts and intuition…If something doesn’t seem right, ask questions…”

Most real estate agents are personable and service oriented, but don’t be surprised if your call to urgently see a home, with an agent whom you have never met, is answered with deliberate caution. The recent murder of Beverly Carter once again puts safety first in the minds of many agents and others in the industry.

© Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.