Rebates: Be Careful Not to Commit Fraud

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With many people pushing various "cash back to the buyer" schemes in real estate, a note of caution is needed. Actually, it's more like an entire symphony of caution. Because if there is a loan involved, you run the risk of committing fraud.

Some people reading this won't care. "What the lender doesn't know won't hurt them," is something I've heard and seen too many times to count. After all, that lender is just some nameless faceless megacorporation, not anybody they care about.

To those people, I say, "The FBI will make you care." Given the spate of abuses, and the current level of panic at many lenders and investment houses, even if your transaction comes off without a hitch and the lender gets repaid in full, you may find yourself on the business end of an investigation. The kinds of real estate and loan places that are willing to pull so-called "harmless" fraud are also willing to pull no holds barred fraud where the entire idea is to defraud the lenders. Where you have the lenders losing money, and a pattern of abuses, you have potential for the FBI to become interested in all of a businesses transactions, and once the FBI starts looking, rebate fraud is so easy to spot that my seven year old could probably do it. They find a known shady brokerage, and it becomes what military pilots call a "target rich environment." It's worth the resources to investigate all of that brokerage's transactions.

Here's what happens. A wants some cash to fix the property up, and so arranges with B to jack the price enough higher so that B can rebate the difference to A. A then procures 100 percent financing on the increased price, B gets the increased price, and rebates it to A.

Alternatively, A writes an offer with a real estate licensee who rebates part of their commission, while providing lesser "services". Usually, the question I want to ask those rebaters I encounter is "Why do you make more than minimum wage?" The answer is because suckers who think in terms of cash in their pocket don't understand what they're getting into.

In either case, this cash back somehow doesn't get disclosed to the lender, and it needs to be. Because if the official purchase price is $X, but B is giving A back $Y under the table, the real purchase price is $X-Y. If the lender knows about the cash back, they will treat the purchase price as being $X-Y. At the very most, for 100% financing, they will only lend $X-Y. Since this defeats the purpose of the cash back, the sorts of people who do this predictably will not disclose it to their lenders.

This is fraud. Even so-called "harmless" fraud where the people fully intend to repay the entire loan (and eventually do) is still fraud. The lender doesn't have to lose a single penny in order for you to have committed fraud. The definition of fraud is "An act of deception carried out for the purpose of unfair, undeserved, and/or unlawful gain, esp. financial gain." The legal definition is a little more complex, "All multifarious means which human ingenuity can devise, and which are resorted to by one individual to get an advantage over another by false suggestions or suppression of the truth. It includes all surprises, tricks, cunning or dissembling, and any unfair way which another is cheated," but essentially similar. Had you told that lender about the cash back, they would have treated the purchase price as being less than the official price. Hence, fraud.

Now there are all manner of crooks out there encouraging people to do this. I've seen numerous advertisements for various "real estate investment systems", and people who represent themselves as real estate professionals and real estate investors and real estate authorities and even real estate licensees who urge people to commit federal felonies for various reasons on the surface that always reduce to "So the crook can make money." Whether it's through a commission they wouldn't have because the client can't be persuaded to do it the legal way, or money they intend to make selling their "Foolproof System!" to thousands of pure deluded fools, they do a lot of damage. Nor does it get you off the hook if you were following the advice of alleged professionals, as lots of people in federal prison can testify. Even if you didn't know it was illegal, even if people you had reason to trust told you it was legal, you are still responsible.

The rebate itself is not illegal, according to my best understanding. Once again, I'm not a lawyer and I don't even play one on TV, so check that out thoroughly, but it is my best understanding. The illegality happens when you deceive the lender, either by omitting information a reasonable person would agree is relevant, or by actively saying something that isn't true.

It's more than possible to get cash back and be compliant with the law - it just defeats the purposes most people have in mind with cash back, which is to make the lender think they paid more for the property than they really did, and so lend a greater amount of money or on more favorable terms, or both, than the lender otherwise would have, had they known about the cash back.

If you inform the lender, they will treat the purchase price as being the official price less the rebate. So if the official price is $400,000, but you're getting $20,000 back, the price the lender will lend based upon will be $380,000, and it doesn't matter if the appraiser says it's worth $400,000, or $400 million. $380,000 will be 100% financing, not $400,000, $360,000 will be 95% financing not 90%, and I'm certain you can figure the rest. Lenders evaluate property based upon the LCM principle, which is Lesser of cost or market. You only paid $380,000 in real terms, which makes it a $380,000 property at most. It doesn't matter whether this rebate is direct from the seller, or some third party. They look at it in terms of "How much of your hard earned money are you actually going to part with?" If some cash is coming back to you, you aren't really parting with whatever number is on the purchase contract, are you?

Where most lenders will cut a certain amount of slack is in closing costs. If the money is not actually coming back into the buyer's pocket, but instead being used to pay for costs of the purchase transaction or costs of the loan, most lenders will give that their reluctant blessing. Because all parts of the transaction are subject to negotiation as to who gets what and who pays what, the lender will usually understand that in order to get that price, the seller agreed to pay this cost or that cost. I don't expect this to last forever because I can point to a lot of abuses that are happening, but it happens to be the case right now. I believe that sooner or later, lenders will clamp down on this practice and refuse to allow it, but for right now, most of them are still willing to do so.

Even the most forgiving of lenders, however, draws a bright and hard line if any of that cash finds its way back into the buyer's pocket. So make certain it doesn't. And make certain that the lender has been notified in writing of every penny that's paid on the buyer's behalf by anyone else for closing costs. Because you don't have to be directly involved in a conspiracy to get drawn into a fraud investigation, and once it gets started, you can never be certain you won't be sitting in a courtroom somewhere, charged with fraud and conspiracy and anything else they can think of to throw at you. Even assuming you win, it's going to be a big hit to your wallet and a bigger one to your reputation.

Caveat Emptor


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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on May 31, 2007 10:00 AM.

Real Loans for Real People May 30, 2007 was the previous entry in this blog.

Refinancing When You're Upside Down on the Mortgage is the next entry in this blog.

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