Only a low credit score stood between Alipio Estruch and a mortgage to buy a $449,000 Spanish-style house in Weston, Fla., a few miles west of Fort Lauderdale.
Instead of spending several years repairing his credit rating, which he said was marred by two forgotten cell phone bills and identity theft, the 37-year-old real estate agent paid $1,800 to an Internet-based company to bump up his score almost overnight.
The result was a happy ending for Estruch, but the growing practice is sending shivers through the mortgage industry. Federal regulators are also reviewing the practice. And after being contacted by The Associated Press for this story, Fair Isaac Corp., the developer of the widely used FICO score, said it will change its credit scoring system later this year in a way it contends will end this little-known but potentially high-impact mortgage loan loophole.
Instantcreditbuilders.com, or ICB, helped Estruch boost his score by arranging for him to be added as an authorized user on several credit cards of people with stellar credit who were paid to allow this coattailing. Parents also use this practice when they add their children to their credit cards to help them build solid credit.
The pitch to those who are essentially renting their credit history for pay is seductive: You don’t need to worry about users of this service receiving duplicate copies of your credit cards, account numbers or any of your personal information. It’s essentially free money, they are told.
Lenders are worried that they’re taking on greater default risks by unknowingly offering lower interest rates than they otherwise would to applicants who artificially boost their credit scores.
Estruch paid $1,800 in December for three credit card spots, and by January, his FICO score jumped from 550 to 715. In mid-March, he closed on his four-bedroom beige stucco house after obtaining a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage from a unit of American Home Mortgage Investment Corp. It carried a 7.5 percent interest rate and required no down payment.
Ginny Ferguson, a mortgage broker in Pleasanton, Calif., and a credit expert for the National Association of Mortgage Brokers, considers the practice mortgage fraud, and the trade organization is about to release a policy statement against it.
“These companies are encouraging consumers to commit fraud. On a standard home loan, there’s a clause that says the consumer is not omitting pertinent facts that could impact his or her ability to repay the loan,” Ferguson said.