CFPB Issues Guidance to Protect Mortgage Borrowers from Pay-to-Play Digital Comparison-Shopping Platforms
February 7, 2023
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued an Advisory Opinion to address certain circumstances in which operators of digital mortgage comparison-shopping platforms may violate the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA).
The advisory opinion outlines how companies violate the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) when they steer shoppers to lenders by using pay-to-play tactics rather than providing shoppers with comprehensive and objective information.
“Given the rise in mortgage interest rates, it is even more important for homebuyers to shop and compare loan offers,” said CFPB Director Rohit Chopra. “We are working to ensure that online platforms are not manipulating their search results in order to coerce kickbacks from lenders.”
People looking for the best deal on mortgages or other settlement services often are turning to comparison-shopping platforms and mobile apps. Many of the websites and applications claim to offer ranked lists of providers suitable to the individual consumer’s needs. After providing their personal data to an online site to get access or run a customized search, people reasonably expect a neutral and fair presentation of the providers that may best meet their mortgage or other settlement needs.
Under RESPA, it is illegal for companies and individuals, including digital comparison-shopping platforms, to receive kickbacks and referral fees in connection with a transaction involving a residential mortgage or other real estate settlement service. Eliminating illegal kickback schemes fosters fair competition by forcing lenders and other providers to compete on a level playing field and leads to lower rates and higher quality service.
The Advisory Opinion describes how companies may violate RESPA, and potentially other laws, if they coerce payments from mortgage professionals, unlawfully steer consumers, or engage in other illegal referral activities, including:
- Presenting one or more service providers in a non-neutral way: The platform’s operator presents lenders based on extracted referral payments rather than the shopper’s personal data or preferences or other objective criteria. For example, the operator presents a lender as the best option because that lender pays the highest referral fee. However, the shopper is led to believe the lender was selected based on their shared personal data or preferences. In one variation, digital mortgage comparison-shopping platforms may receive payments from lenders to rotate them as the top presented option regardless of whether the highlighted lender is the best fit for the shopper.
- Biasing the platform’s internal formula to favor preferred providers: The platform’s inputs or formula are manipulated to generate comparison options favoring higher-paying or preferred providers. For example, a platform’s formula is designed to steer shoppers to use providers in which the operator has a financial stake. In this case, the shopper is unaware that the platform’s formula was potentially designed to steer them away from non-preferred providers.
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