Chuck Jaffe: Mortgage spam a reminder to be vigilant
BY CHARLES JAFFE Market Watch
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
2/27/13 at 3:05 AM
There's a difference between fraud and deception, but it's not a line consumers want to see crossed when it comes to their financial affairs.
For proof, consider the odd case of Pastor David Rollins of "First United Baptist Church." Depending on where you live and where the purported reached you, that church could be in Massachusetts, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina or elsewhere.
The email I received from Rollins noted that he was on the board of a company called Christian Mortgage, "a mortgage refinance company based on Christian principles. We can help you refinance your mortgage and get a lower monthly payment. Your next mortgage payment could be HUNDREDS less per month. We try our best to help ALL Christians. Even if your credit is not the best, or if you have been denied by other lenders, we can still help you!"
The note went on to suggest that the company's foreclosure rate is lower than average "because we only lend to Christians," which purportedly helps reduce monthly payments.
"We work with over 100 of the biggest banks and financial institutions," it said. "We have them compete against each other to get you the lowest monthly payment."
That last statement may indeed be true, because at the heart of the matter is what lenders and mortgage brokers will do to compete for business.
The email was convincing. It had a link to the church website that included a picture of Rollins, a schedule of services but no contact details. In my case, the website located the church two towns south of me, but the email had the church three communities to the north.
The link to ChristianMortgage.org - a website that, like the church site, has since been taken down - ultimately was for a "lead generator," a service where consumers enter some very basic information and it gets sent out to companies looking for prospects to sell to. In short, this is how the information got out to the financial institutions that were competing for customers.
Ultimately, the church was a fake. It doesn't exist.
It's a classic case of affinity fraud, where a consumer's affiliation with a group, school, community or organization becomes the door-opener that lets the wolves in.
It appears the spammers behind this plot are simply hoping to drive traffic to a lead generator, where they get paid a buck or two for every new sales opportunity they create.
That's sneaky and disingenuous, but no regulator I talked to - from several states' banking, lending, securities, real estate and state departments - could find an actual crime there.
Indeed, I talked to an embarrassed woman from Louisiana who had responded to the email she got from the fictitious Rollins by filling out the form on the mortgage site. She was almost immediately inundated with calls from prospective lenders.
Likewise, Steve Southwell of the Lewisville Texan-Journal reported that he filled out the form and was shortly thereafter contacted by several lenders, none of whom claimed any knowledge of the Christian mortgage programs.
As nefarious spam email campaigns go, this one could be considered comparatively benign - no one was out-and-out stealing a victim's money. But the problem is this: It's a very small step from a deception like this to a much larger fraud.
"It's always something, and you have to keep your guard up," said Ed Long, an advocate for senior consumers and the founder of SeriousGivers.Org, a site that helps consumers determine if they are dealing with legitimate charitable organizations.
Long noted that churches don't have to register with the Internal Revenue Service, "which makes it easier for someone to be slimy through a church, and harder for a consumer to be sure that the group they are dealing with is real."
Original Print Headline: Mortgage spam a reminder to be vigilant
Chuck Jaffe, senior columnist for MarketWatch, can be reached at email@example.com or at Box 70, Cohasset, MA 02025-0070.