'Piggybacking' Roils Credit Industry
Sunday, June 3, 2007; 6:56 PM
-- 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 beginning 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.
Brian Kinney, 44, a retired Army officer in Glendale, Calif., pulls in more than $2,500 a month by lending out 19 credit card spots on two old Citibank cards with strong payment histories. Kinney, whose FICO score is above 800 on the scale of 300 to 850, quit his job working at a Farmers Insurance agency and uses the ICB income to tide him over until he starts his own insurance agency.
Lenders are worried, however, 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. Their trade group has complained to the Federal Trade Commission and is talking with the credit reporting bureaus in case the practice becomes more widespread.
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.
"Everything now is score driven. I had a great mortgage history, but I got hurt because of my credit score," said Estruch, who also works as a mortgage broker, had bought and sold two houses previously, and currently owns another home in New York. Estruch said he's current on his mortgage payments.
Companies like Largo, Fla.-based ICB are sprouting on the Internet with little overhead and no-frills marketing. They post ads on community Web sites like Craigslist and have sponsored links on Google and Yahoo. Competitors of ICB have even reached out to mortgage brokers, lenders and real estate agents, flooding their e-mail with advertisements.
Jason LaBossiere, who founded ICB a year and a half ago, said his company receives 100 to 150 new leads daily _ a number that has been growing _ and those inquiries lead to 10 to 20 new clients a week.
ICB charges $900 for the first credit card account, with a discount for additional ones. The cardholder allowing the piggybacking on his or her credit history can receive $100 to $150 per slot, depending on the age and credit limit of each card. ICB pockets the rest.