How to Avoid Mortgage Refinance Scams

Managing Your Mortgage, Mortgages
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If you’re a current homeowner who’s hoping to refinance your mortgage, scammers might be targeting you. They’ll use email, phone calls, fliers and even direct mail to lure you in, but beware — these scams are designed to steal your money or personal information.

From touting mortgage “relief” plans to promising rock-bottom mortgage rates for a nominal fee, scammers use numerous angles to get what they want from vulnerable homeowners who might be struggling to make mortgage payments. In 2013, more than 11,000 complaints for loan fraud (including mortgages) were filed with the Federal Trade Commission, according to the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book.

If you’re looking to refinance, it can be hard to tell the legit offers from the bogus ones. Here are some tips to help you do that and avoid falling prey to mortgage refinance scams.

Know the common scams

Anytime you receive an offer that asks you to reveal personal information in exchange for a specific service, you should be suspicious, says Katherine Hutt, national spokeswoman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, Virginia.

Although you might receive legitimate letters in the mail from time to time, usually you have to seek help to refinance or modify your mortgage. What’s more, you must have your current lender approve and sign off on any such change, and that’s not going to happen over email or a phone call with a third party, Hutt says.

“The usual pitch is a special program guaranteeing a low interest rate so you can refinance your mortgage,” Hutt says. She adds there’s always a catch, such as needing you to fill out forms with your personal information or wire a fee to get your file started. Other scams include asking you to sign over your home’s title to a company or individual in exchange for help (don’t do it!).

Scammers will typically ask for your name, address, date of birth and Social Security number so they can steal your identity — or sell it to someone else, which can be even more lucrative. In short, if it’s not your current lender and you don’t know the company or individual making the offer, it should set off alarms. The best place for such offers is usually the trash can, but if you think the offer might be legit, be sure to do your homework thoroughly before giving out personal information or paying for services.

Nerd note: The FTC has a list of other mortgage scams. Also, the FBI provides online resources for spotting and preventing mortgage fraud crimes.

Never, ever pay fees upfront

If you do receive mortgage refinance offers (often cloaked as “relief”), scammers will sometimes ask you to pay an upfront fee to work with your current lender on a refinance. Another huge, waving red flag: an offer that tells you to stop paying your mortgage and reroute the money to the relief agency instead, Hutt says.

“They will literally use any angle possible,” Hutt says of scammers. “To lock in a low rate, they’ll ask you to send money over a wire transfer, prepaid debit card or gift cards — all which are untraceable.”

Scammers who are successful in persuading consumers to fork over substantial sums withdraw the cash from an overseas account or prepaid cards, then disappear with your money for good.

Requesting fees upfront before the promised results are delivered is illegal, according to the FTC’s Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule. The rule states that a company can’t collect any fees until a homeowner has actually received an offer of relief from his or her lender and accepted it. So even if you agree to a mortgage relief service, you don’t have to pay until the transaction or services have been provided to your satisfaction.

>> MORE: Tips to reduce your home expenses and maximize your refinance savings

Beware of suspicious emails

One of the easiest ways for scammers to swindle you out of money or personal information is by sending deceptive emails. They can send thousands of messages and make it hard for authorities to track the scammers down, Hutt says.

If you get an email from what looks to be a real bank or lender, analyze the URL and sender email address closely; scammers who are trying to steal your personal information typically change the URL to make these items appear legitimate, but they actually redirect to fake sites that steal your information.

Whatever you do, Hutt warns, don’t click on any links from an email if you can’t verify who the sender or company is; call your lender to ask if it sent the offer.

Seek help on your own

If you’re interested in refinancing or modifying your loan, contact your lender first to see what it can do to help. If you need to modify your mortgage because you’re struggling to make payments, or if you’ve received a foreclosure notice, your lender might work with you on negotiating repayment terms.

Avenues for help

Speak with a credit counselor through the Homeownership Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit organization that operates the national 24/7 toll-free hotline (888) 895-HOPE with free, bilingual, personalized assistance to help at-risk homeowners avoid foreclosure.

Call the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at (800) 388-2227 to discuss debt relief options with an NFCC certified credit counselor.

Think you’ve been a victim of fraud or identity theft? File a police report with your local law enforcement agency first, then contact the Federal Trade Commission, your state attorney general’s office, and the Better Business Bureau.

The BBB has a new scam tracker tool that allows you to search for reports of possible scams to see if other consumers have encountered the same caller, phone number, website or keywords that you have. (Note: Keep in mind that even if you don’t find a report of a scam through the BBB’s tool, the offer you received still might not be legit.)

Deborah Kearns is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: dkearns@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @debbie_kearns.

 

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