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Reverse mortgage scams: What they are and how to avoid them

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Reverse mortgages can be helpful for older homeowners who have significant equity in their homes and want to convert it into supplemental income. However, bad actors sometimes target seniors with misleading claims about how a reverse mortgage works. Before you take out this type of loan, here’s what you need to know, including some of the most common reverse mortgage scams to avoid.

How reverse mortgages work

Unlike a mortgage where you take out a loan and gradually pay it back, a reverse mortgage — as the name implies — works in the opposite way. Your mortgage lender makes loan payments to you, based on a percentage of the value of your home, either in a lump sum, monthly installments or a line of credit (or a combination of these options). Instead of paying down a loan, your debt grows, and you don’t pay it back until you sell or move out of your home, or pass away.

The most widely available reverse mortgage is the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM), which is issued by private lenders and insured by the Federal Housing Administration. This loan is available to homeowners who are 62 or older, have significant home equity and are living in their home. The maximum loan amount for a HECM in 2022 is $970,800.

There are also proprietary reverse mortgages from various lenders, who might offer higher amounts, but the fees could also be considerably greater.

Common reverse mortgage scams

Because reverse mortgages can be a ready source of cash, fraudsters might encourage seniors to apply by making misleading claims or committing outright fraud. Some pitches include:

‘You can delay Social Security’

How it works: A fraudster might tell a homeowner to take out a reverse mortgage at age 62 to make up an income gap while delaying Social Security benefits to age 70.

Why it’s bad: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has found that the costs of a reverse mortgage exceed the cumulative increase in Social Security that homeowners would receive by delaying benefits. What’s more, borrowers who use this strategy could later find that they have limited options for moving to a new location.

‘You can buy a home with no money down’

How it works: In this scheme, con artists — often with the help of straw buyers — purchase a distressed or abandoned property, then recruit seniors to “purchase” the low-cost home by transferring the deed to them for no exchange of money.

Why it’s bad: The seniors move into the house and the swindlers help them obtain HECMs with lump-sum payments that are based on an inflated appraisal. The perpetrators then find a way to abscond with the money at closing.

‘You can get free income’

How it works: Some advertisers claim you can obtain “free income” with a reverse mortgage. In reality, you receive loan payments, not income, which is why the money you receive isn’t taxed.

Why it’s bad: Ads taking this approach might not disclose the fees you’ll pay, either, and the fact that if you fail to pay for homeowners insurance or property taxes or maintain the property, you could lose your home.

‘You can trust us’

How it works: Some reverse mortgage lenders hire celebrity spokespeople to lend credibility to their advertisements.

Why it’s bad: While the product the spokesperson is touting could be legitimate — and you might even like or trust the celebrity’s claims — be sure to do your homework before committing to an offer.

‘You don’t need to involve your spouse’

How it works: If you’re older than your spouse, be wary of being steered toward being the only borrower of the loan rather than including your spouse.

Why it’s bad: If you pass away before your spouse does, because the loan will become due when you die since you are the sole borrower.

‘Sign here’

How it works: Some scammers could ask you to sign documents that have blank fields. Never sign documents with blanks, even if the other party claims they’ll fill them in later on.

Why it’s bad: The scammers could fill in anything in those blanks, allowing them to do things such as outright transfer ownership of your home to them, without giving you a cent.

‘You can make home improvements’

How it works: In this scam, a contractor or home improvement professional suggests a reverse mortgage as a method of payment for work they claim your home needs.

Why it’s bad: While a reverse mortgage can help you come up with cash to make home improvements, it might not be the best route to take — especially because you could instead qualify for a home equity line of credit (HELOC) or home equity loan, which can be less expensive and risky.

‘You can invest in this money-maker’

How it works: In this scenario, a scammer tries to get you to use money from a reverse mortgage for a “lucrative opportunity,” such as an annuity, life insurance policy or stocks.

Why it’s bad: Purchasing these products is usually not the smartest financial move, especially if you need the funds for other purposes, like healthcare costs. Remember: You are never required to purchase any sort of financial product, or invest in anything, to qualify for a reverse mortgage.

‘You won’t lose your house’

How it works: To pressure you into committing to a reverse mortgage, fraudsters could use scary — even threatening — language to make it sound like you need the loan in order to avoid foreclosure.

Why it’s bad: No matter how persuasive they are or how urgent they make it sound, know that you always have other options. One is to reach out to your current lender to discuss ways to afford your monthly payments.

Reverse mortgage red flags to watch for

Here are some signs of a potential reverse mortgage scam to look out for:

  • The scammer sends you an unsolicited offer.
  • The scammer says they’re the only lender or salesperson you should talk to.
  • The scammer says a reverse mortgage is the solution to all of your financial problems.
  • The scammer tries to sell you a financial product.
  • The scammer is pushy.
  • The scammer tries to send you payments for a home you didn’t buy.

How to avoid reverse mortgage scams

Before you take out a reverse mortgage, speak with a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-certified housing counselor. Shop around for a reputable lender and check for complaints with the Better Business Bureau, as well.

“A legitimate reverse mortgage or a Home Equity Conversion Mortgage is insured by the Federal Housing Administration, so borrowers need to make sure that is the type of loan they are looking at,” advises Jeff Taylor, co-founder and managing director at Mphasis Digital Risk.

If you’re interested in a reverse mortgage, consult with your current lender or a trusted financial advisor first, Taylor recommends. If your lender doesn’t offer reverse mortgages, at least it might be able to point you to a reputable lender who does.

The same applies if you’re struggling financially and looking for a solution.

“If you are experiencing a financial hardship, contact your mortgage lender directly,” says Scott Sheldon, branch manager at New American Funding in Santa Rosa, California.

If you’ve found a reverse mortgage, done your research and solicited expert advice, it’s important to make certain you’ll have adequate income to cover your real estate taxes and homeowners insurance every year, too, as failure to do so is the biggest cause of foreclosures.

Finally, make sure you attend the closing and receive any payments personally.

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If you think you’ve been a victim of a reverse mortgage scam, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on its reporting website or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP. You can also file complaints with your local FBI field office, your state Attorney General’s office or your state’s banking regulatory authority.