Protect Yourself From HELOC Fraud

If you are not checking your home equity line of credit (HELOC) often, now is the time. The number of thieves fraudulently acquiring these accounts and siphoning out thousands of dollars by stealing identities and fooling lenders has increased. However, the risk can be reduced and victims' credit rebuilt by following a few simple steps. (For background reading, see The Home Equity Loan: What It Is And How It Works.)

A home equity line of credit is a type of revolving credit in which a homeowner borrows against his or her home equity, which is used as collateral. If a payment is late or can't be met, the borrower could lose the home.

Homeowners are approved for a specific amount, generally $20,000, $30,000 or $50,000. The amount becomes their credit limit, and it may have some limitations on its use. Lenders may let you borrow up to 85% of the appraised value of your home, minus the amount you still need to pay, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Many HELOCs have a fixed period to borrow this money, at the end of which the credit can be renewed. Homeowners are provided with special checks and credit cards.

Most people use a HELOC to pay for major expenses, such as education, home improvements and medical bills, as opposed to day-to-day expenses. As a result, they may not review the account, or they may forget they even have one. Unfortunately, criminals are privy to this lack of awareness and find HELOCs an attractive target.

Mortgage fraud involves misstatements, misrepresentations and omissions by an applicant or interested party, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and HELOC fraud is a type of mortgage fraud. Criminals have used several methods to rob HELOC accounts, but the FBI has drawn special attention to HELOC identity-theft scams.

IN PICTURES: Biggest Stock Scams

Here's how it happens. Criminals pose as customers. They may get a hold of your personal information through public records. Next, they establish a HELOC internet account and manipulate the customer account verification process in order to get funds. This manipulation occurs by rerouting phone calls, forging signatures and figuring out passwords or using your stolen account history. (To learn how to safeguard your online information, read Keep Your Financial Data Safe Online.)

For example, the thieves may send a fax to the financial institution and direct the funds to another account. Even if the institution calls the holder of the account for verification, the criminals can manipulate the number so that it's forwarded straight to them. All they have to do is confirm the account holder's information to complete a wire transfer. (For more, see Stop Scams In Their Tracks.)

One reason criminals are able to get away with this crime is because the documents checked for the mortgage aren't the same for obtaining a HELOC. Depending on the circumstances, few documents are needed.

Anyone with equity in their home can become a victim, especially homeowners with good credit and seniors citizens who've paid off their mortgages.

Identity-theft experts have found that people learn about the crime when the financial institution calls them about the late payment, they receive written notification of a late payment, they check their credit reports, or a marshal shows up at their home and they are told to leave their property. (Read Saving Your Home From Foreclosure to learn what you can do to avert this disaster.)

Reduce Risk
How can you reduce your risk of becoming a target of HELOC fraud? Check your HELOC statements regularly, and examine your credit reports for any inaccurate information. Obtain access to your credit reports from one of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) and get a copy of these reports every year. Protect your mail, and be conscious of any changes. (Read more on this process and other reasons for checking your credit rating in The Importance Of Your Credit Rating.)

As a more extreme measure, you could also get a credit freeze. This prevents the three major credit bureaus from giving out information on your credit report until you provide consent, but you'll need to check with your state to find out how the law there will affect the freeze. For instance, you may have to pay additional fees, or the law may require that certain details are followed.

Repair Credit
If you notice suspicious activity, the first thing to do is to alert your financial institution. Next, you should contact local law enforcement and file a police report. You should also talk to others who may be involved with the account, such as collection agencies, the company that wrote the loan and credit reporting agencies. Also, seek assistance from identity theft organizations, such as the Identity Theft Resource Center and the Identity Theft Assistance Center.

When talking to the credit agencies, have the police report in hand and ask that an extended fraud alert be placed on your credit reports. This tells credit grantors that they need to check with you before extending credit in your name. The alert stays on the report for seven years. A copy of your identity theft report, whether from federal, state or local law enforcement, will need to be submitted to the three credit agencies. (For more, read Identity Theft: What To Do If It Happens.)

Identity thieves are finding new ways to carry out crimes, but you can stop them from using your home equity line of credit and alleviate headaches by monitoring your line of credit, checking your mail for any suspicious activity and getting a credit freeze. Act quickly if you find out that your credit has been compromised by contacting all institutions involved.

For more on protecting your assets from would-be thieves, see Identity Theft: How To Avoid It and Credit Scams To Watch Out For.