HAVE RECENT events finished off what the government calls the "white-collar mugging" of elderly people? They're talking about insurance salespeople who charge huge fees for advising seniors about reverse mortgages.

This game barely got started before the mortgage industry and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) closed ranks to stop it. The lenders and loan servicers won't handle the clients they bring in.

The leading fee-charging firm is Patriot Inc. of San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Insurance agent Jeff Butler, Patriot's chief executive officer, declined to comment. But his attorney, Sharon Babbin of Hillyer & Irwin in Washington, says there's "a conspiracy to put Mr. Butler out of business." She says the firm is contemplating legal action.

The fight has nothing to do with the worthiness of reverse mortgages. They can be a godsend to people in their 70s and up, with meager incomes and paid-up homes.

A reverse mortgage is a loan against the equity that seniors have in their homes. Most borrowers open a credit line that they can tap for cash at will. But you might also choose a monthly check or a single lump sum.

You make no repayments on this loan and can stay in your home for life. The lender is reimbursed, plus interest, from the proceeds when the house is sold.

Reverse mortgages are available in every state but Texas.

The mass distribution of these loans is pretty new. At present, they're carried by a limited number of regional and national lenders.

It's easy to learn who these lenders are. Just call 800-7-FANNIE (Fannie Mae offers reverse mortgages and also buys them from lenders).

You can also send $1 and a stamped, self-addressed, business-size envelope to the National Center for Home Equity Conversion (NCHEC), Suite 115, 7373 147th St. W., Apple Valley, Minn. 55124, for a list of lenders and reverse-mortgage counselors that abide by the center's code of ethics. You can also call HUD's toll-free information line, 888-466-3487.

But seniors don't always discover these sources, and the average banker has no idea.

Enter the telemarketing industry. Patriot and others solicited seniors for "estate planning" services, touted reverse mortgages, then gave them the mortgage lenders' names.

Sometimes they drove clients to the lender. They sat in on the mandatory counseling session on reverse mortgages, required by law (seniors have to be told about all their financial options, to try to keep them from being taken advantage of). If the house had to be repaired, the agents might have called a contractor.

In return, they typically charged 8.5 percent to 10 percent (Babbin says that percentage was levied on the net loan amount, although the agreements didn't specify). On a $60,000 loan, that's a $5,100 to $6,000 "service fee," in addition to all the mortgage-closing costs.

"Outrageous," says Robert Sahadi, vice president for housing initiatives at Fannie Mae. "We're trying to minimize the costs and here comes someone adding 8.5 percent on top."

Clients of these firms tend to take lump sums rather than credit lines (that's one reason the agents sit in on the counseling). The agents wheel most of the loan proceeds into an annuity, thereby earning a second commission.

A brochure from America's Trust, an affiliate of Patriot, solicited agents by touting all the annuities that reverse mortgages could help them sell.

Annuities can be a legitimate choice. But "clients aren't having all their options or costs laid out carefully," says NCHEC chief Ken Scholen.

Toward the end of last year, worried lenders started alerting HUD and Fannie Mae about the high fees. In mid-December, Fannie stopped buying the loans brought in by Patriot and similar firms.

Last month, HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo announced that the Federal Housing Administration's reverse mortgage program would no longer accept loans sent its way by firms that "victimize senior citizens." He named Patriot and some of its affiliates.

Patriot's Butler had been sanctioned by California for deceptive and high-pressure sales and lost his license to sell health insurance there in 1995.

Babbin says Butler "was a victim" just distributing someone else's bad product and that clients are happy with his services.

This month, Cuomo lost a legal action that Patriot brought against him. The U.S. District Court in Washington concluded that Cuomo's executive order exceeded his legal authority. Now, he's seeking legislation which has wide bipartisan backing.

"We've already effected what we wanted, we put them out of business," Cuomo told me. Unless Patriot gets another bright idea.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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