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'Trigger leads' drawing fire

Published May 30, 2007


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 said.

"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 last week Minnesota's governor 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.

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.

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.

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.

[Last modified May 29, 2007, 22:36:31]

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