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Mortgage Fraud Threatens Housing Rebound

Bank-owned-house.jpg
Bank-owned-house.jpg

iStockphoto

With home prices continuing to fall and more foreclosures yet to come, it’s clear that tough times remain for a housing market recovery. And to add to the troubles, another threat to any rebound is emerging: mortgage fraud.

The risk of mortgage fraud in the third quarter of this year on U.S. home loans shot up 11 percent from the previous quarter, according to Interthinx, a firm that provides fraud prevention services to lenders. But unlike the inflated home values and incomes that marked the mortgage fraud common during the housing boom, things are different this time around. Interthinx, which analyzes mortgage fraud nationally, and uses its risk measure to show where it may be increasing the most, found a continuing shift to schemes involving bank-owned foreclosed homes, and short sales, in which an owner sells the house for less than what’s owed on the mortgage and the lender forgives the remaining debt. The firm also reported that real estate agents and other professionals increasingly are involved in the schemes, which are growing in popularity due to the abundant supply of foreclosures, and the fact that appraisals frequently aren’t required in order to sell distressed properties.

[Economy1]The fraud goes beyond just just ripping off banks. Mortgage fraud leads to more property value declines in hard-hit neighborhoods, leaves homeowners already in distress in even worse shape, and ultimately will end up costing taxpayers, who will be stuck with the costs when loans go bad.

As fraud picks up, a typical scheme increasingly works like this: A homeowner underwater on a mortgage, owing more than the home is worth, arranges a short sale – with a friend or relative as the buyer. The relationship is never disclosed to the lender. The home then gets deeded back or gifted to the troubled borrower shortly after the sale. Or, the bank unwittingly accepts a lowball short sale offer, allowing the new owner to quickly flip the property to a buyer already on standby, willing to pay a higher price. Such schemes amount to fraud because buyers and sellers lie to the bank about the true nature of the transactions. Banks lose more money than they would have, had the short sales occurred at their true market value – the profits go into the pockets of the flippers. Some investors only flip the properties again, saddling the buyer’s lender with a property that’s not worth the mortgage amount.

Flipping foreclosures and short sales is taking off as the latest real estate craze, with numerous web sites popping up to market advice on turning quick profits on distressed properties. And short sales also are expected to only increase as loan modification efforts continue to falter, and borrowers facing foreclosure have few other options. Interthinx expects fraud involving a “straw” borrower – a deceptive stand-in used as cover for a questionable transaction – to also become more frequent as a result.

“Since many large for-profit schemes during the boom were fueled by a steady stream of straw borrowers recruited through ‘investment’ clubs and networks, the coincidental proliferation of “get rich quick” websites targeting short sale and REO investors and the continuing popularity of “flip this house” programs on TV suggests that there is a significant pool of potentially willing participants, and that left unchecked, the damage could be significant,” Interthinx said.

The problem for neighborhoods with distressed homes is that investors buying them up and flipping them can destabilize a community even further, since some investors may not maintain properties or may walk away from losses. Using relatives for short sale fraud means the bank ends up approving a mortgage that the owner still may not be able to afford, creating more losses, both for the bank and for the neighborhood.

And, increasingly, people involved in fraud schemes are finding ways to finance them through taxpayer-backed Federal Housing Administration loans, an agency already dealing with delinquency problems and and mortgage fraud, said Robert Simpson, president of Investors Mortgage Asset Recovery Co. in Irvine, Calf., a firm that analyzes mortgage fraud. The FHA’s loan volume has quadrupled since 2006, and FHA-backed loans have been beset by rising defaults that some contend put the agency at risk for a taxpayer bailout. Between the FHA, and government-controlled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, nearly 90 percent of all mortgages are backed by the U.S. taxpayer. Banks and lenders took the losses, at least initially, the last time around. This time, taxpayers may end up on the hook, he said.

“Anytime there’s money out there, someone will begin trying to figure out a way to get to it,” Simpson said. “Right now, the fraud gets shipped over to the FHA. We’ve got to hope they are being very diligent, because if they are not, the damage will be irreversible.”

Mortgage fraud played a huge role in the mortgage market collapse. Borrowers qualified for loans they couldn’t afford when brokers inflated their incomes, sometimes without their knowledge.These days, fraud revolves less around the origination of the mortgage loan and more with all the different transactions that take place over distressed properties, from sales of Real Estate Owned homes to short sales, said Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance, a trade publication that follows the subprime industry. The well-documented proliferation of foreclosure rescue and loan modification scams is a prime example, Cecala said.

Mortgage fraud also is on the rise because former subprime loan officers are out there looking for new jobs, and new ways to make money, he noted.

“Whenever there’s a new transaction, there’s a new way to game they system, and this is exactly what people are trying to do,” he said.

Short sales at first seem an unlikely target for fraud, because they can be a lengthy and difficult process, with banks often taking months to approve sales, if they do at all. For that reason, Cecala said, he believes short sales – at least for now – comprise only a small piece of the mortgage fraud picture. But the Treasury Department is expected to issue guidelines soon on streamlining short sales and offering financial incentives to borrowers and lenders. The push for more short sales, combined with a backlog of foreclosed homes, distressed homeowners, and banks anxious to get foreclosures off their books, will likely make short sale and REO flipping fraud more prevalent.

A recent investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune of sales in two Florida counties, for example, found that banks had lost “untold millions” because of short sale flippers using questionable appraisals and failing to disclose that a quick sale at a higher price had already been arranged. The report found a small industry of flippers buying distressed properties and reselling them within days. Real estate professionals were a key part of the schemes, participating in both buying and selling properties. All the losses added up, with just the most suspicious sales, where properties were flipped within a day, already costing banks $1.7 million in Sarasota and Manatee counties alone.

Flipping properties isn’t illegal, but it can involved fraud in several ways, explained Ann Fulmer, vice president of business relations for Interthinx. It’s when a seller never mentions higher offers on the table from bona fide purchasers, or fails to disclose that the seller already has a contract with a buyer for a higher price. Red flags sometimes should be raised when borrowers use transactional funding, which means essentially renting someone else’s money for one day, in order to appear in a stronger financial position. Then there’s the the use of land trusts – they’re not illegal, in and of themselves. Land trusts are organizations created to purchase and hold real estate. But short sale gurus are advising investors to set them up to evade FHA anti-flipping rules, and to hide the true borrower’s identity, which can amount to fraud.

“Short sale flips are today’s equivalent of the California gold rush,” Fulmer wrote recently.

She and other mortgage experts noted that banks already are on to some of the schemes. In some cases, banks are requiring everyone involved in a transaction, from the real estate agent to the mortgage broker, to sign affidavits swearing they have aren’t in the flipping business with anyone else involved in the sale. Cecala, of Inside Mortgage Finance, said federal law enforcement agents also are moving more aggressively even on smaller cases of mortgage fraud, unlike during the housing boom, when only major cases drew attention.

But a fraud specialist for a major wholesale lender, who declined to be named, said there’s still plenty of misdeeds going on. Some borrowers are filing amended tax returns showing a much higher income than the borrower’s true income. The borrower pays a penalty to the IRS for unpaid taxes, but uses the higher income figure to qualify for a bigger loan, or for a loan he wouldn’t otherwise have qualified for. In addition, some builders still are offering “silent seconds” to borrowers who can’t afford a home on their own. A silent second refers to a second mortgage, sometimes used for a downpayment, that is not disclosed to the lender of the first mortgage.

Stated income and no documentation loans known as liar loans, may be gone, the fraud specialist said, but some lenders still are seeing borrowers and loan officers still trying to fudge or doctor financial information, a common practice during the pre-liar loan days of the 1980s, he said. “We’re seeing white out again,” he said.

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