Straw Buyer Fraud

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I've gotten several emails to articles recently having to do with straw buyers, and more search hits. Red flags preceded home-fraud lawsuit and Fraud case hits home seem to cover one of these weasels particularly well.

A "straw buyer" is someone whose credit is used to purchase a property and secure financing. Sometimes they cooperate willingly and sometimes they are victims of identity theft, but it's always illegal. It is also, as these two articles illustrate, hazardous to your financial health.

Person A wants to buy a property, but convinces person B to step in as a "straw buyer" to obtain terms that person A could not. Alternatively, person A steals person B's identity, and forges all of their information on the purchase and loan papers. In both cases, person B is not the person really purchasing the property, but their name is on the mortgage. In the first case, person B is fully responsible for the loan and everything else that goes on, as well as having committed FRAUD. In the second case, they've got a long hard row to hoe to convince everyone that they weren't involved, because with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, it is worth the lender's while to be as hard-nosed as possible. The lender does not particularly care about justice in this case; what they want is the money they loaned out to get repaid.

The closest thing to benign that happens in straw buyers is when one relative, let's call him Junior, convinces another relative, call her Mom, to use her good credit so that Junior can afford the payments on a house he really does want to live in. Please note that this is still fraud - you are deceiving the lender for the purpose of getting a better loan than you would otherwise be able to obtain. Good agents and good loan officers want no part of this, because it doesn't matter how benign the intent, the fact of the matter is that it is still fraud. The lender discovers it, or if payments get missed, that agent or loan officer is legally toast. Note that this is different from Mom buying Junior a property for Junior to live in, or helping Junior afford property Junior wants to buy. There is sometimes a thin but always bright line between legal and illegal activity, and starting to deceive people - telling anything less than the whole truth and nothing but the truth - is always a sign you have stepped over the line.

Now, once you get away from this most nearly benign straw buyer scenario, things degenerate quickly and there are many scams and frauds that can be pulled. Many of them involve appraisal fraud. Most common is that someone persuades you to allow them to apply for a loan on your behalf to buy a property for them, which has supposedly appraised for $700,000. You end up responsible for a $700,000 loan on a $400,000 property, and the people who pull this scam walk away with $300,000 (or more) free and clear.

There are also all kinds of scams involved with people that want someone else on the mortgage, but themselves on title. If you quitclaim off of title, this does not absolve you from the mortgage. In general, the only way to absolve yourself from the mortgage is for them to refinance in their own name, and since they are claiming they couldn't do this, that just isn't going to happen. It's one thing for one spouse to qualify for the mortgage on their own but legally quitclaim it themselves and their spouse, husband and wife as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. It is something else entirely to quitclaim it to Joe Blow (or Jane Blow), but allow yourself to remain on the mortgage. If Mr. or Mrs. Blow does not pay the mortgage, guess who is liable? I get hits on this site every day asking, "How do I remove myself from a mortgage?" The answer is that you don't. The lender has your signature on the dotted line that says "I agree to pay..." The only way they are going to let you off is if the people remaining qualify for the loan without you - by which I mean a refinance. Even most loan assumptions (for loans where assumption is possible and approved) are subject to recourse for at least two years, usually longer. This is one reason that for divorcing couples, it needs to be part of the dissolution agreement that the property will be sold or mortgage refinanced before the dissolution is final to protect the spouse that isn't keeping the property (they're often entitled to some cash from the equity, as well).

There are good and strong reasons why straw buyers are illegal, reasons that start at fraud and run through confidence games of all sorts, which are also fraud, albeit with a personal as opposed to corporate victim. The games that can be played on you when you cooperate with a straw buyer request start at major financial disaster, and often include felony jail time.

Caveat Emptor

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on April 1, 2008 7:00 AM.

Hot Bargain Property March 31st, 2008 was the previous entry in this blog.

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