Homeowners in several states, including Missouri, say they each lost thousands of dollars in home loan modification schemes after relying on information from the Nationwide Business Bureau's website at nbbonline.org. The website includes what appear to be bogus customer testimonials or reviews.
The NBB describes itself as a for-profit business established in 2007. It lists an address in San Francisco and claims to be the "only true neutral arena for businesses and consumers to display accurate accounts of past performances."
But Michelle Corey, BBB president and CEO, said information on the website cannot be trusted. "It is clear that hundreds - and possibly thousands - of these so-called customer testimonials are as phony as three-dollar bills," she said.
"Consumers should understand that the Nationwide Business Bureau has no connection to the BBB," she said. "Anyone who uses information on the NBB website to make a business decision is taking a huge risk," she said.
A woman from Lafayette, La., said she entered into a contract with an NBB "approved" and "verified" mortgage modification firm in St. Louis County only to learn later that the firm had vanished and she had lost $2,700. The NBB rated the business as "excellent," based on 298 positive reviews from consumers. It appears that many, if not all, of the reviews were faked.
Many of the reviews for the company are identical to reviews found in the reports of other businesses rated by the NBB. Several of those businesses also have drawn complaints to the BBB in recent months.
The BBB cites several specific problems with the NBB and its ratings:
- As recently as last week, the NBB rated NuVision Relief Center, the St. Louis County mortgage modification firm, as in "excellent standing" with "no unresolved complaints." Homeowners from six states have filed complaints about NuVision with the BBB over the last two months, saying the company disappeared with their money after guaranteeing to dramatically cut their mortgage payments. NuVision has an "F" rating with the BBB, the lowest possible.
- In November, the BBB Serving Western Michigan issued an alert that warned consumers nationwide about Unified Assistance Group of Grand Rapids, Mich., another loan modification business with a BBB rating of "F." BBB records list more than a dozen complaints against Unified from consumers who said they paid between $2,500 and $3,700 for guaranteed home loan modifications but got neither the modifications nor refunds. Until recently, NBB also rated that company as in "excellent standing" with 298 positive reviews on the NBB website. Except for the names of the reviewers, the testimonials for NuVision Relief and Unified Assistance are almost identical.
- Integris Support Services of Scottsdale, Ariz., still another home loan modification group, had received 119 positive reviews on the NBB website before the company vanished, owing money to more than 50 homeowners across the nation. A man from St. Louis who said he lost $2,500 to Integris said he never would have become involved with the company had it not been for the glowing reports on the NBB website.
In addition to NuVision, United and Integris, other home loan modification companies have come under BBB scrutiny, despite overwhelmingly positive reviews on the NBB website.
The St. Louis man who claims he was duped by Integris said he and his girlfriend read the long list of positive reviews on the NBB website before deciding to do business with Integris. "That is what lured me in, reading all of those testimonials about what they did for all of those other homeowners," he said.
He said Integris promised to reduce his interest rate to 2 percent from 6.7 percent, cutting his mortgage payments in half. He said he agreed to send Integris $2,500 only after reading about the company's 100 percent money back guarantee. When the loan modification was rejected, the man tried to get the promised refund. "By that time they were gone," he said. "They were nowhere to be found."
A homeowner from Sea Girt, N.J., said he, too, was influenced by "all those positive reviews" of Integris on the NBB website. "I got burned for $3,700," he said.
A woman from New Freedom, Pa., said NuVision promised her savings of more than $8,000 a year on two mortgage modifications. She said she decided to pay the business $3,750 for the work, in part because of the strong reviews on the NBB site. "It seemed fine, until the end," she said. "They took my money."
NBB has not responded to a BBB phone call seeking information about its site.
The BBB warns consumers to be wary of doing business with any third party firm that promises to negotiate home loan modifications in return for advance payments. For the past several years, it has been illegal for a business to accept upfront fees on promises that it would modify loans. In most cases, it is best for the homeowner to work directly with his or her mortgage company to renegotiate loans.
The BBB also urges consumers to be cautious when dealing with business rating or review groups they do not recognize. These groups may not be legitimate. Be wary, too, that online testimonials from consumers can be faked, making it appear they are from actual customers when they are not.
The BBB offers some tips on recognizing phony testimonials or reviews:
- Be on the lookout for testimonials that appear either too vague or 100 percent positive. Few businesses are perfect.
- If you are suspicious, do an internet search for phrases contained in a testimonial to determine whether they have been lifted from another site.
Watch for reviews that do not make sense. For instance, one NBB review initially identifies the reviewer as being from Nebraska, but later claims he is from Virginia.