In the wake of the mortgage meltdown, regulators and law-enforcement officials are sounding alarms about the potential for yet another type of mortgage fraud—this time, in the small but fast-growing reverse-mortgage market. Such fraud, though still rare, “is occurring in every region of the United States and reverse-mortgage schemes have the potential to increase substantially,” according to a recent publication issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the federally insured loans that account for some 99% of the reverse-mortgage market.
Available to people 62 and older, reverse mortgages allow homeowners to convert their home equity into cash. Instead of writing a check to the bank each month, the bank pays the homeowner, who can elect to receive a lump sum, a line of credit or monthly payments. The loan is repaid, with interest, when the borrower dies, moves, sells the house, or fails to pay property taxes or homeowner's insurance.
Reverse-mortgage fraud, typically committed by homeowners' relatives, caretakers or financial advisers, has also been cropping up recently in schemes to unload distressed real estate. Regulators cite cases in which real-estate speculators bought properties on the cheap and then sold them, using inflated appraisals, to senior citizens willing to take out reverse mortgages. Lenders and administrators of the HUD program say reverse mortgages, for the most part, are still working well. “There are little scams around the edges,” says Meg Burns, director of Single Family Program Development for the Federal Housing Administration, the HUD division that administers the reverse-mortgage program. Recent data—and HUD's own inspectors—indicate reverse-mortgage scams are on the rise.
So far this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, HUD has referred 29 cases of suspected fraud to its Office of Inspector General for investigation, up from two the year before. Jacqueline Felton, who heads the FBI's mortgage-fraud team, says her agency is also seeing an increase. Indeed, HUD's data on suspected fraud likely understates the extent of the problem. Anthony Medici, who in June testified before Congress as a special agent in the OIG's Criminal Investigation division, said current cases “involve hundreds of properties.”