CFPB Fines Loan Originator, Brokerage Firm for Illegal Kickbacks
August 24, 2023
Freedom Mortgage and Realty Connect agreed to a settlement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for providing illegal incentives to real estate brokers and agents in exchange for mortgage loan referrals.
According to the CFPB, Freedom Mortgage provided real estate agents and brokers with numerous incentives—including cash payments, paid subscription services and catered parties—with the understanding they would refer prospective homebuyers to Freedom for mortgage loans. This conduct violated the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA). Under the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), the CFPB has the authority to take action against institutions violating consumer financial laws, including engaging in unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices.
The CFPB ordered Freedom Mortgage to cease its illegal activities and pay $1.75 million to the bureau’s victim relief fund. The CFPB separately issued an order against Realty Connect USA Long Island (Realty Connect), for accepting numerous illegal kickbacks from Freedom Mortgage. Realty Connect will pay a $200,000 penalty and cease its unlawful conduct.
“Freedom provided kickbacks to real estate brokers and agents—including those at Realty Connect — in return for mortgage referrals, a clear violation of federal law,” said CFPB Director Rohit Chopra. “The CFPB will be vigilant in rooting out anti-competitive behavior that interferes with consumers’ ability to choose financial products and services.”
Freedom Mortgage is a privately held nonbank mortgage loan originator and servicer headquartered in Boca Raton, Fla. In August 2021, Freedom Mortgage transferred its traditional retail mortgage unit to its wholly owned subsidiary, RoundPoint Mortgage Servicing. RoundPoint ceased traditional retail operations sometime in August 2022. Realty Connect is a privately held real estate brokerage firm based in Suffolk County, N.Y.
According to the CFPB, the specific RESPA violations include:
- Paying for referrals through illegal marketing service arrangements: Freedom Mortgage entered into marketing services agreements with over 40 real estate brokerages where the originator made monthly payments totaling approximately $90,000 to brokerages in exchange for the brokerages’ marketing services. However, Freedom Mortgage used these marketing services agreements as a way to pay for mortgage referrals, rather than compensate the brokerages for marketing services they actually performed. Realty Connect received $6,000 per month from Freedom, but failed to perform many of the marketing tasks required under the agreement.
- Offering premium subscription services free of charge: Freedom gave real estate brokers and agents free access to valuable industry subscription services, which provided information concerning property reports, comparable sales, and foreclosure data. Freedom paid thousands of dollars per month for one of the subscription services, and Freedom provided access to over 2,000 agents for no cost. Freedom often required real estate agents and brokers to agree to be paired with a Freedom loan officer before Freedom would give them access to its subscription services. Since 2017, the real estate agents who received free access to these subscription services—including agents at both Realty Connect and other brokerages—made more than 1,000 mortgage referrals to Freedom.
- Hosting and subsidizing company events and providing gifts: Freedom hosted parties and other events for real estate agents and brokers, including events held exclusively for Realty Connect brokers and agents. Freedom paid for the food, beverages, alcohol, and entertainment. Freedom would also sometimes give free tickets to sporting events, charity galas, or other events where the agents and brokers would have otherwise needed to pay their own way. Freedom also denied requests for event sponsorship from real estate brokerages that did not refer mortgage business to Freedom’s loan officers.
The orders also prohibit Freedom from providing anything of value to other entities in exchange for mortgage referrals. Realty Connect is prohibited from accepting items of value in exchange for mortgage referrals. Neither Freedom or Realty Connect admitted or denied the bureau’s findings.
The CFPB published a set of frequently asked questions on RESPA, including guidance on gifts and promotional activity, to help regulated entities understand their obligations under federal law.
During this downturn in the mortgage and real estate markets, title companies may contemplate entering some type of business relationship with real estate agents or lenders. Joint ventures may ensure that orders come your way, but what are the risks? The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is cracking down on RESPA violations and is focused on abusive practices that harm consumers. Register for this SoftPro-sponsored ALTA Insights webinar (1:00-2:00 p.m. ET, Sept. 27) as attorney Jeff Ehrlich analyzes the potential pitfalls and why title companies should be cautious when forming joint ventures.
Contact ALTA at 202-296-3671 or email@example.com.