Trigger unhappy

BOSTON – As a former mortgage broker, Adryenn Ashley thought she knew what to expect when she refinanced her house in March. Yet Ashley was unprepared for one twist she encountered: A barrage of phone calls and e-mails from rival lenders vying to sell her a better mortgage.

Some of the callers apparently knew just how much money she was borrowing. Others made misleading come-ons such as “We need to update your information,” or “We need to complete your application,” Ashley recalls.

“I have privacy concerns over that,” she said from her home in Petaluma, Calif. “My information should be confidential.”

These days, mortgage shoppers like Ashley are supreme telemarketing targets, thanks to “trigger leads” that the credit reporting bureaus sell to lenders the instant a consumer’s credit file is pulled by a loan officer. So when Ashley’s lender checked her credit to prepare her loan, dozens of other mortgage companies were tipped off. These alerts can be had for a few bucks per name if bought in bulk.

This is legal – though not necessarily for much longer. A few states have been exploring restrictions on the practice, and Minnesota’s governor recently approved a block on most trigger leads. A ban is pending in Massachusetts.

Potential congressional action is brewing as well. The House Financial Services Committee, chaired by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., is investigating the issue in advance of hearings it expects to hold on a broad review of the credit-reporting agencies, according to committee spokesman Steven Adamske.

Such hearings could find that trigger leads have drawn some powerful enemies.

The proposed ban in Massachusetts, for example, was floated by the state bankers’ association. Its chief operating officer, Kevin Kiley, fears that “the trust that has been established between the bank and the consumer has been essentially undercut” because of trigger leads.

“Why should a bank be in a situation where it invests millions of dollars in a branch network and advertising, if I can go out and just buy leads?” Kiley said. (On Web message boards frequented by mortgage brokers, the act has a more colorful name: It’s called “snaking a deal.”)

The National Association of Mortgage Brokers, whose membership includes many customers of trigger leads, officially isn’t a fan of them. Its president, Harry Dinham, laments that many buyers of the alerts aren’t really in a position to make a firm offer of credit, as required by the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Even so, Dinham says a ban would be overkill. He’d prefer to see the leads sold only on consumers who elect to put their names on the trigger lists. As it stands now, leads about your interest in a mortgage can be sold unless you bother to opt out from all prescreened credit solicitations. That requires calling 888-567-8688 or visiting www.optoutprescreen.com.

The credit agencies defend their sale of trigger leads by arguing that it promotes competition, which keeps rates down. That stance has support at the Federal Trade Commission, which says consumers can benefit from the practice.

“It is absolutely false to say the first lender or broker that a consumer goes to is definitely going to have the best offer,” said Stuart Pratt, director of the Consumer Data Industry Association, the credit reporting agencies’ trade group.

Pratt insists that the credit agencies, led by the three largest – Experian, TransUnion and and Equifax – check their trigger leads against anti-telemarketing Do Not Call lists.

However, it’s unclear how well that step works or is being followed. Ashley, for example, believes she was already on the Do Not Call list. Same with Matthew Tuttle, who runs a wealth-management firm in Stamford, Conn.

“I’m getting these calls five months after I refinanced,” Tuttle said. “Refinancing is a pain enough – I’m not doing it again, especially not for a recording,” he said.

The length of Tuttle’s onslaught might not be unusual. Pace University publicist Cara Halstead Cea said she and her husband have averaged at least a call a day for 14 months now. “We understand you are looking to refinance,” the callers still intone. The frenzy prompted the couple to get caller ID so they can answer the phone with their own script: “If this is about refinancing, we’re all set. Please take us off your list.”

Mortgage triggers have been sold for at least a few years, but they have become more of an issue recently. Kiley at the Massachusetts Bankers Association believes this is because the home-buying binge early in the decade caused an explosive growth of mortgage brokers and mortgage companies that now, in a cooling market, are redoubling efforts to win business.

Trigger leads also have cascaded because of a vast data-collecting infrastructure created by the credit bureaus and amplified by innumerable information brokers who serve as resellers. “Borrowers Trigger’d Yesterday Delivered via email to you Today,” reads an ad on Google for one broker’s site, MortgageTriggers.com.

Such resellers offer to filter trigger alerts for mortgage lenders by dozens of criteria, including consumers’ location, credit scores and home value. DailyTriggerLeads.com says buyers of its alerts can “eliminate Hispanics or select them.”

The owner of one marketing service – who refused to be identified by name, fearing negative repercussions for his company – said he has been selling mortgage triggers for almost two years, accounting for about 20 percent of his revenue. He said he presumes his product increases the chance a consumer will get a mortgage offer that keeps the mortgage banker honest and the playing field fair.

That’s how he can sleep at night, he said.

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