Fraud in Real Estate, Mortgages & Homebuilders

Sunday, August 17, 2008 | 07:30 PM

An article in the weekend WSJ got me thinking about Real Estate related frauds of all kinds. Titled FBI Probes Unusual Incentives for Home Buyers, it looks at whether the homebuilder's incentives, if not properly disclosed to a 3rd party mortgage underwriter, was a form of fraud:  

"When home sales began to slow at the start of the downturn, home builders offered buyers incentives -- instead of reducing prices -- to stimulate demand. The incentives included cars, tuition and credit-card payments, and even cash.

A sign is posted in front of a bank-owned home that is for sale in Richmond, Calif.
Now, federal investigators are questioning whether some of those incentives misled lenders and caused them to write mortgages that were artificially inflated, contributing to today's home-price crash"

Anyone who follows the real estate market long enough will eventually become familiar with various forms of fraud that at times lurks in the industry. Any industry where large sums of money are involved invites unsavory characters.  With median home prices well over $200,000, housing was no different.

I do not believe Real Estate related fraud, under most circumstances,  is all that widespread or common. One of the many things that made the 2002-2006 housing boom so unusual, however, was that fraud had become pandemic.

What might start out as a minor conflicts of interest slips over time into something more nefarious. When False statements get made to counter- or third parties who in good faith rely on those statements to their detriment, you have the makings of fraud.  And what these types of undisclosed misleading statements become the norm, you have systemic fraud.

The most recent cycle saw many different types of fraud perpetrated by various industry players. All together, these various fraudulent actions contributed in a large way to the extent of the housing boom.

Here are what I see as the most common forms of fraud during the 2002 - 06 cycle:

1) Appraisal Fraud: Many appraisers found they could attract more referral business by inflating their appraisals to whatever the selling price was priced at. In a boom, it became easy to justify such fraud by using similarly priced homes in the neighborhood. Any basis of intrinsic value could be ignored, so long as “comparable” properties sold for similarly over-priced amounts.

The overuse of comparables helped justify prices that were increasingly unsupportable. As prices spiral upwards, the use of comparables becomes meaningless. High prices justify higher prices. It eventually reached the point where honest appraisers petitioned Washington D.C. to intervene in the widespread fraud. (The White House chose not to intervene).

2) Referral Fraud: Complicit in appraisal fraud were the real estate agencies that knowingly steered appraisal referrals to those agents they knew would give them the valuation they sought, rather than a true valuation. The agents and agencies were the enablers -- they are the ones who incentivized the appraisers to commit the actual fraud. The agents were the unindicted co-conspirators to appraisal fraud, as they paid for, aided and abetted the actual fraud itself. 

Many buyers do not realize that real estate agents legally represent not them but the seller. They are motivated to close the transaction in order to get their commissions. This can lead to "questionable" referrals (including engineers as well).

3) Application Fraud: It was an open industry secret that mortgage applications were usually completed by mortgage brokers, rather than by the borrowers themselves. “Just leave those lines blank, we will take care of them” was a common refrain. Savvy brokers knew how to meet the requirements of each bank in order to get loans approved. Indeed, the “No credit check, no income verification” loans practically invited this kind of fraud.

That the banks knew what was going on and looked the other way, however, does not make this form of financial deception any less a felony.

4) Underwriting Fraud: Just how aware were the banks that these borrowers were unqualified?

An internal memo from JPM Chase reveals exactly how much the banks understood who they were lending to. It involves Zippy, Chase's in-house automated loan underwriting system.  The memo's title: "Zippy Cheats & Tricks." It explains to bank employees how to get an unqualified applicant approved for a mortgage. A Chase spokesperson denied that Zippy Cheats & Tricks was official policy; thus we are reassured that this was only "unofficial policy.”

5) Mortgage Fraud: Anyone who filled out a mortgage app, and put false information on it committed fraud. I do not believe, as some fraud apologists have claimed, that this rose anywhere near the level of what has been so disingenuously termed “predatory borrowing.”

We know it happened on more than a few occasions. Where the intent was to obtain financing that the borrower would not have otherwise qualified for, it is fraudulent. That banks should have been more proactive in protecting against this form of deception is no excuse.

The bottom line remains that anyone who overstated assets or income or understated debt or financial obligations committed fraud.

6) Predatory Lending/False Statements: As of this writing, the FBI has arrested nearly 1,000 in connection to this form of fraud. A significant number of borrowers (I don't have a definitive number) may have been subject to predatory lending.

There have been numerous examples of lenders deceptively convincing borrowers to agree to loan terms that are abusive. One of the most common versions in recent years was representing an adjustable rate loan as a 30 year fixed mortgage. Anecdotally, I have seen many examples of this.

Note: This list is really just on the home purchase side, and doesn't even get to the doesn't include the fraud by Moody's and S&P in rating the various RMBS, CDO and CLS and other RE related structured products.
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QUESTION:  How many forms of fraud were associated with this last cycle in Real Estate, Mortgages, Securitization, Fund Management, Structured Products, etc. ? What other fraudulent activity took place?

What say ye?

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Previously
:
How to Get an "Iffy" loan approved at JPM Chase (March 2008) 
http://bigpicture.typepad.com/comments/2008/03/zippy-cheats-tr.html

Source:
FBI Probes Unusual Incentives for Home Buyers
Investigators Ask Whether Payments Misled Lenders
NICK TIMIRAOS
WSJ, August 16, 2008; Page A2
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121884641242946145.html

Sunday, August 17, 2008 | 07:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (49)
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Comments

Barry,

It seems like you focused on fraud on the part of all of the business types that were involved but forget about the individual buyers. In my opinion the largest fraud was the collective fraud perpetrated by the buyers on the low doc and no doc loans. While businesses were inviting this fraud with these types of loans this was fraud.

Posted by: Jeff | Aug 17, 2008 7:49:16 PM

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