RISMEDIA, August 28, 2007-All Erica Bradshaw really wanted was a house. But when she applied for a 30-year mortgage to purchase a home in downtown Orlando this year, it didn’t take long before she was deluged with other credit offers.
They said she was spending too much money. They told her she could get a better deal on her mortgage. And most ominously, they warned that she might already be in default — before she’d even made her first payment.
“When it first started happening, I was opening the mail and I panicked,” said Bradshaw.
Blame the three major credit bureaus. When a mortgage broker checks a consumer’s credit, that broker’s search is coded with information indicating that the search is occurring because the consumer has applied for a home loan. Third-party companies buy and sell the information, known as “trigger leads,” to other credit companies, who then may call or mail the consumer.
To be sure, some consumers may welcome the opportunity to loan-shop.
But the problem, mortgage brokers say, is that the calls may not always be entirely clear about the fact they don’t originate from the consumer’s original mortgage company. If a consumer isn’t aware of what’s happening, the consumer may give additional information to the callers — triggering another credit check and throwing confusion into the loan process.
For its part, the credit industry hints that mortgage brokers may just have sour grapes.
“A large part of it is the fact that the mortgage market has gone south in the past two or three years,” said Norm Magnuson, spokesman for the Washington-based Consumer Data Industry Association, a credit-industry trade group. “Now with fewer customers out there . . . I think it’s purely a competitive issue.”
But for consumers such as Bradshaw, the brazen credit come-ons are more than just an annoyance, even though her boyfriend, a mortgage broker, explained what was happening.
Competing lenders have more than just consumers’ names, phone numbers and addresses: Some of the companies buying trigger lists can narrow their information requests so they only get the names of targets in specific areas or have specific open loan balances or credit scores. That means they know even more about the targets they call. Despite the outrage of consumers, the practice is legal. According to the Federal Trade Commission, which generally has credit-industry oversight, the Fair Credit Reporting Act allows Experian, TransUnion and Equifax, the three major credit bureaus, to resell consumers’ personal information to brokers. The FTC even says it warns consumers that shopping for a mortgage can trigger competing offers.
The position of the Florida Association of Mortgage Brokers is that trigger leads are risky — not just because they’re a violation of consumers’ privacy, but also because they may be fertile ground for identity thieves.
“We find trigger leads to be extremely consumer unfriendly,” said Ritch Workman, the association’s Melbourne-based president. “They enhance the opportunity for criminals to steal identities.”
Workman’s distaste for trigger leads went from professional to personal in January, when he applied for his own mortgage. He said he received a call from someone fishing for business fewer than 24 hours later. When the man on the phone said he was calling from Workman’s mortgage company and needed a few more details to complete the application, Workman said he asked the man “Oh, really? Which one of my employees are you?”
The man quickly hung up.
Workman said that if he’d been less savvy, he might have given out his Social Security number — enough information for the man to have a head start on doing some damage to his credit rating.
Consumer advocates are scrambling to determine how to deal with the possibility of identity theft via trigger leads.
“The big trifecta, with identity theft, is Social Security number, date of birth and your address,” said Richard Schram of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Central Florida. “Anybody who has that can take electronic advantage of you.”
To combat the problem, the National Association of Mortgage Brokers has created a brochure for mortgage brokers to hand out, Workman said. The brochure tells customers that if they receive calls from competing brokers, it’s not because their brokers have sold their personal information. Magnuson, of the Consumer Data Industry Association, places the onus on consumers to place themselves on various lists to avoid calls or mail tied to their credit.
But for Bradshaw, that’s not quite enough.
“People have enough to worry about with the housing industry. There’s enough real danger out there right now,” said Bradshaw. “They don’t need extra danger.”
Copyright © 2007, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.