THE WAGES OF VIRTUAL SIN: Financial predatorsJune 4th, 2009
FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed–
BARABAS. Fornication: but that was in another country,
And besides, the wench is dead.
- from “The Jew of Malta,” Christopher Marlowe, 1589/1590
Wars and calamities breed predators. Morality is almost always a casualty of the disorder following upon conflict and social upheaval. So we should not be surprised, however disgusted, that a new breed of predator has crawled out of the current financial wreckage. Desperate people facing the loss of their homes through foreclosure are an easy target. Some of the same unscrupulous operators who peddled subprime mortgages to people who could not afford them are now selling fraudulent remedies that purport to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.
Fraudulent foreclosure “rescue” professionals [aim] to make a quick profit through fees or mortgage payments they collect from you, but do not pass on to the lender. Sometimes, they assume ownership of your property by deceiving you, the homeowner. Then, when it’s too late to save your home, they take the property or siphon off the equity.
The scammers extract money from distressed homeowners in several different ways: by obtaining a fee in advance for promise of service; finagling a transfer of the property title to the ‘rescue’ firm by allowing the owner to remain as renter; claiming special relationship with or pretending to be the lender and having mortgage payments sent to the scammer’s address; and (illegally) charging a fee for modifying a mortgage under the new federal relief plan.
Greed and unscrupulous behavior are certainly not new phenomena. But today there are many more opportunities and much greater scope for financial predators. The increase in opportunities is largely a consequence of the growth of intermediaries and agents in financial transactions, which in turn results from specialization of function in the financial sector. In an effort to make operations more efficient and flexible, the financial services industry has copied long standing practices in the goods producing sector. For example, mortgage lenders use a variety of brokers to bring in customers; they rely on external appraisers to assess property values; they use external credit reporting agencies and in-house specialists to determine the credit worthiness of borrowers; they outsource the record keeping for their loan portfolios; and they contract with securities specialists and underwriters to assist in creating bundles of mortgages to offer to the investing public.
Each of these specialized functions creates distance between lender and borrower and enlarges the role of intermediaries. With each new intermediary comes an opportunity for exploitation or fraud, as the financial transactions in which intermediaries play a role become increasingly obscure to individual consumers. Making matters worse is the increased scope for mischief stemming from the use of the new interactive media available on the Internet. It is much easier than ever before to reach and interact with masses of consumers. Web advertising and email have democratized information access, but at the same time have empowered crooks. The anonymity of the Web gives license to commit acts of fraud that might be more difficult in traditional social contexts where face-to-face interaction often inhibits unacceptable behavior.
Action at a distance facilitates a diminished sense of responsibility. Of course there are crooks who steal from family, friends and neighbors, but many more who steal from people at a distance whom they don’t know and are not likely to encounter. Virtual organization requires loose coupling between actors to achieve its promised flexibility and efficiency. Unfortunately this requirement has the disadvantage of distancing people from each other and thus incurring the cost of reduced trust and responsibility.