We’ve all seen the email scams: “This is a genuie request.” “Your lendar has detected an unpaid sum.” “I’m a prince and I need your help.” Digital fraud has become highly sophisticated and, according to reports by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, has risen by more than 100% since the COVID pandemic began.
These scams come in all different forms — some posing as bank representatives or as being affiliated with government housing assistance programs. While scammers tend to target vulnerable consumers such as elderly populations, no one is immune. Here are common types of scams that prospective and current homeowners should be aware of, and how you can protect yourself:
Scams to watch out for before a home purchase
Future homebuyers looking to bolster their credit history ahead of a mortgage loan application may look for quick fixes to get the best deal. But predatory credit repair businesses are on the rise and can swindle you out of money that could go toward a down payment.
Some credit repair companies lure consumers to purchase their services by falsely claiming they can remove negative information from consumers’ credit reports even if that information is accurate. These scammers often charge consumers a large up-front fee but then fail to help them settle or lower their debts — if they provide any service at all.
“ There’s nothing a credit repair service can legally do for you that you can’t do for yourself.”
While it can be tempting to offload the work of fixing your credit to a credit repair company, it’s important to know what they can and can’t do. There’s nothing a credit repair service can legally do for you that you can’t do for yourself for little or no expense. For starters, you can access your credit reports from each of the three nationwide credit bureaus for free, every week through the end of 2023, by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com.
Scams to watch out for during a home purchase
One of the most common scams future homeowners face during the closing process is called mortgage fraud or escrow wire fraud. These phishing scams attempt to divert your closing costs and down payment into an account the fraudster has access to by confirming or suggesting changes to your wiring instructions.
Some consumers have reported receiving fake emails that look as if it came from their realtor, with legitimate-seeming documents and new instructions on where to wire their deposits. For consumers taking a significant chunk of their life savings out for a down payment, these schemes can be devastating. In fact, they are so pervasive the FBI estimates that in 2017 alone there were close to $1 billion in real estate transaction losses due to these fraudsters.
Another common scam that occurs during the mortgage-shopping process is a bait-and-switch scam. Fraudulent lenders will lure prospective buyers with advantageous terms and low mortgage rates. Once the consumer has begun the process and signed on, these scammers will claim the homebuyer no longer qualifies for the original deal and will switch the offering to one with worse terms or higher rates.
Bait-and-switch scams are especially important to be wary of because mortgage rate changes do occur in legitimate settings and therefore can be hard to prove. Depending on the stage of the lending process, some buyers may find it difficult to back out of the process without losing the opportunity to buy the home they’ve been working toward.
Scams to watch out for after a home purchase
Most scammers target vulnerable consumers, and it’s fair to say that someone at-risk of losing their home is highly vulnerable.
A common scam post-home purchase is referred to as foreclosure relief or mortgage relief. Since homes in pre-foreclosure can be found in public records, some scammers offer homeowners in financial pinches a way to lower mortgage payments for an upfront fee.
“ The “pay us first” ask is the most obvious sign you’re being approached by a hustler ”
The “pay us first” ask is the most obvious sign you’re being approached by a hustler — it’s against the law for a company to charge upfront fees for services that help consumers get relief on paying mortgages.
Foreclosure rescue or “white knight” scams, another common post-home purchase rip-off, is when a fraudulent prospective buyer makes an offer to a homeowner at risk of foreclosure. In exchange, the homeowner signs over the deed for a “temporary” period. In some cases, the scammer can then sell the home and even attempt to evict the former homeowner.
How to avoid becoming a victim
While it may seem overwhelming to be on the lookout for sinister scam artists at each stage of the homeownership process, consumers can take simple steps to protect themselves:
1. Be aware of the phone numbers or email addresses contacting you for personal information — just one letter or number from a familiar contact that looks off warrants a double-check.
2. If you receive an offer from someone that you’re considering engaging with, take the time to verify the company’s reputation. When in doubt, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) works with the FBI to identify trends and fraudsters and can be an effective resource.
Eric J. Ellman is senior vice president for public policy and legal affairs at the Consumer Data Industry Association.
More: These online scams to steal your money will shock you — even if you think you’ve seen them all
Also read: Some home builders are offering mortgage rates as low as 3%. Here’s why.