Personal Finance

10 Tips to save more money

From time to time, we post articles that aren't related to our primary business, real estate sales... except that they sort of are.

All our clients, friends and family are in the same boat we are: living through the New Normal Economy, learning to make due with less in a post-Great Recession world.

Pretty much everybody we know has made resolutions to "spend less money" and "save more" but it's awfully hard to do so without a definite plan. Today's 10 Tips come from one of my favorite blogs, CreditSlips.

  1. Meeting friends at a restaurant for dinner? Tell them "I already ate," to save you from chipping in on the big tab at the end of the meal. Of course you either need an iron will, or you need to have pre-planned and already eaten something from home!  See CreditSlips' 10 Mantras to Help You Meet Your Financial Goals, Tip 1, for sneaky ways to get out of tossing money on the table when the tab arrives.

  2. Leave your plastic at home so you can honestly tell friends, "I don't have my card," when you're invited out for after dinner drinks.

  3. When it's gift giving time, remember that "simple" and "homemade" equal "thoughtful" and "expensive" just equals "expensive".

  4. See the CreditSlips post, 10 Mantras to Help You Meet Your Financial Goals for the full list of ideas, including The Waiting Period and The List.

Good luck out there in the New Normal Economy! Remember, we're all in the boat together. Your friends and work colleagues are probably trying as hard as you are to save more money.


Save money on your phone bill

I stumbled on this money saving tip by accident this morning. Do you have a land line telephone in your home? I do. Never use it. It exists only to keep my TiVo happy and full of programming data.

I called the phone provider - who is also my internet provider - and asked them to drop the line. Almost immediately, the phone company offered me a 25% discount off the price of the phone portion of the bill, good for six months. In hindsight, I probably could have negotiated for a bigger discount.

So I guess if you're seeking savings wherever you can find it, you might benefit from a quick call  to your land line phone provider.

FHA Short Refinance program

The FHA has announced a new program in the ongoing battle to fix the foreclosure crisis.  See details on the FHA website for this FHA Short Finance program for underwater homes.

The main points of the new program -

  • Existing loan to be refinanced is not FHA insured;

  • Must owe more on their mortgage than the value of the property;

  • Must be current on the existing mortgage to be refinanced;

  • Must have a “FICO based” decision credit score greater than or equal to 500;

  • Existing first lien holder must write off at least 10% of the unpaid principal balance (UPB);

  • Loan-to-value (LTV) ratio of no more than 97.75%;

  • Combined loan-to-value (CLTV) ratio must be 115% or less; and

  • For manually underwritten loans, the qualifying ratios can be no greater than 31/50.

Sadly, there are many Metro Phoenix area homeowners who won’t qualify for this program because they’re more than 15% underwater.

update Sept 15, 2010: just heard about another point in this program. To facilitate refinancing, the Treasury Department will provide incentives to existing second-lien holders who agree to full or partial extinguishment of the liens. That's big news! And for some underwater homeowners, making the second mortgage 'go away' might mean the difference between staying in the home or walking away.

Lease Purchase, Rent to Own

Rent to own and lease-purchase agreements are cropping up in the Greater Phoenix real estate world these days. They’re a natural result of the continuing tight credit market.

Lease-purchase and rent to own are essentially the same things.  A lease with a purchase option is almost the same, just with more complicated legalese thrown in there.

We don’t typically assist folks with leases that turn into purchases, no matter what the terms. We feel strongly that you really should hire a lawyer if you’re going to do anything that involves renting a house now and buying it in the future.

Here’s some brief thoughts on the situation; I took these from a quick email I sent out earlier today to some friends of ours.

Rent to owns (lease-purchase and lease-purchase options) are usually a little tricky --

  • does tenant pay a little extra each month towards down payment?
  • or does the tenant pay a lump sum amount now? (usually several thousand dollars!)
  • if so, who's bank account “gets” the deposit(s)? does that money earn interest? for whom?
  • under what circumstances are extra payments refundable?
  • what happens to that extra deposits/payments if the rent is late a day or two? if it’s late several weeks?
  • do you value the purchase price of the home now or in several years when the purchase happens?
  • do you get an appraiser? who pays for the appraiser?
  • what if the appraisal comes in lower than the agreed-on purchase price?
  • what if either side changes their mind between now and the purchase?

As you can see, there are a lot of questions. We recommend you hire a real estate attorney to help you figure out the answers. Call or email us, we know several excellent Greater Phoenix attorneys!

Short sales, loan modifications and checking accounts

Image ID 1260843 by StockExchange user sgback

image credit, user sgback at StockExchange

If you’re trying to complete a short sale or loan modification on your home, do not keep money in a checking or savings account with the bank that holds your mortgage.

Open accounts with another bank, savings and loan, credit union (or whatever) that is not related to your mortgage(s) and move your money there.

Of course, if you're doing a short sale or loan modification, you should hire an attorney or a CPA/accountant, or both. Don't take my advice as gospel. I'm a Realtor, not an attorney or CPA or accountant. Hire an expert who looks at your unique situation.

From newswire service:

Banks routinely obtain a "right of offset" in agreements with depositors, which allows them to take money from one account to settle a debt in another account with the same bank.

. . .

[normally this doesn’t apply to mortgages and checking accounts but]  Rosemary Ybarra, lead foreclosure intervention counselor [with] Neighborhood Housing Services of Phoenix, said she was aware of instances in which banks have exercised their right of offset against delinquent mortgage borrowers. (emphasis mine, not Inman’s)

Although Ybarra could not say how common the practice is, when clients seeking loan modifications are unable to cure their loans, "we let them know that the servicers will exercise their right (of offset), and that if they have an account open with them, to liquidate it."

This seems like just common sense and street-smarts.  You wouldn’t take a loan from a loan shark and then tell him “I can’t pay you” while clutching a  wallet full of $100 bills. Would you?

What's left in your checking/savings account might be only a couple of hundred dollars, but you'll be really, really angry if your bank takes it and applies it to your mortgage balance.

The quote above is from an article posted August 23, 2010 on which is a subscription news service for the real estate industry. Like a lot of news sites, Inman has a fee section and a free section. The article the quote comes from was free on August 23, 2010 and pay-for-viewing after that.

Home buyer tax credit extended

Legislation that extends until Sept. 30 the closing deadline for claiming the homebuyer tax credit -- HR 5623, the Homebuyer Assistance and Improvement Act of 2010 -- was passed by the Senate by unanimous voice vote Wednesday and could be signed into law by President Obama today.  (source,

Buyers still needed to be under contract on the home purchase by April 30, but now have an additional three months to close the purchase.

Phony cashier’s checks going around

June 30, 2010

Image ID 754431 by Stock Exchange user aeropw

Just got an email news update I thought I’d share.

Mechanics & Farmers Bank (NC) reports that counterfeit cashier's checks bearing the institution's name are in circulation. "The counterfeit items display the routing number 053100452, which is assigned to Mechanics & Farmers Bank. The items are similar to authentic cashier's checks. A security feature statement is embedded in a darkened top border and along the bottom border between two padlocks. A box contains the dollar amount. Authentic cashier's checks are light gray with burgundy overtones and have a four-sided design border.

Who’s liable for the value of forged cashier’s checks?

The Federal Trade Commision, in a 2007 publication, said that:

Forgeries can take weeks to be discovered and untangled. The bottom line is that until the bank confirms that the funds from the check have been deposited into your account, you are responsible for any funds you withdraw against that check.

Who do you tell if you think you’ve been given a fake cashier’s check?

  • The Federal Trade Commission Visit or 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). • The U.S. Postal Inspection Service Visit or call your local post office. The number is in the Blue Pages of your local telephone directory.

  • Your state or local consumer protection agencies (i.e the State Attorney General’s office)

  • In Arizona, that’s Attorney General Terry Goddard, at or 800.352.8431 (local callers, use 602.542.5025)

  • click to visit the source of data above

The Shiny

Real life observation: women who go to the gym in a full face of makeup with their hair done just so. . . . they crack me up.

This has nothing at all to do with real estate.

Or. . . does it?

Many of the buyers we've worked with in the past 2 years or so are shopping in the lower price ranges. Single family homes with 3 bedrooms and 1 or 2 baths. Price range is about $70,000 to $100,000.

Inevitably the selection of houses we see includes something just like the two homes below.

Home Number One

The Realtor’s description reads like this -

A/C replaced 2 years ago, new roof in 2009 with transferable warranty, water heater only 5 years old. Exterior painted last month. Seller will buy 2-year home warranty. This home has been well cared for by original owner. Price reduced to $105,000!

This house has pictures like these:

the shiny, old KIT

the shiny, old BA

. . . and it looks like this from the front:

the shiny, old ext, good curb appeal


Then there’s the other option. . .

Home Number Two

Inside, it looks like this:

the shiny, new KIT

the shiny, new BA

But it looks like this on the outside:

the shiny, shiny house bad EF

. . . and the Realtor description on this house says something like this:
Complete remodel! Travertine floors, maple cabinets, stainless steel appliances. New carpet, new paint. Seller will not issue Disclosure Statement about condition or provide CLUE insurance history. Ready to move in at $97,900.

Home number one has all the fundamentals dealt with. The big-ticket, expensive items to replace have all been replaced. The cosmetics are, well, to be kind: dated.

Home number two is an obvious investor fix and flip. The investor just completed a total overhaul of the house but refuses to provide a disclosure statement listing what he or she knows about it. Nice! Plus, that chain link fence in the front makes me reach for the eye bleach. I guess the seller’s message here is “we don’t really like our neighbors much” ?

It’s the curse of The Shiny

Guess which house the majority of buyers make an offer on? Home number 2.

Buyers get stars in their eyes over the fancy, shiny interior remodel and forget that they’re buying a home they know nothing about that could possibly need a roof, A/C unit and water heater in the first couple years of ownership. Plus miscellaneous plumbing &/or electrical problems as yet unknown, because even the best home inspection can’t possibly uncover everything.

Sure, the interior cosmetics of home number 1 are dated. It looks like the Brady Bunch just moved out. I get that. I do, I really do. I don’t want to live in the Brady house anymore than my buyers do.

I just can’t help feeling that I’m not really doing my job 100% when I can’t convince the average buyer to consider for more than a few fleeting moments the incalculable value of a house with the big-ticket stuff already paid for. Even if it’s an extra $7,000 in purchase price and has 15 year old cabinets and counters… The value of having a new roof, A/C and water heater are nearly priceless to cash-strapped first time homebuyers.

Too many home buyers act like the star-struck middle-aged men at the gym: so blinded by The Shiny of a middle-aged woman in Kabuki makeup and a fancy hairstyle they can’t focus on anything else. Not even their own good.

edited to add links below

What is a Seller's Disclosure Statement?

What is a CLUE insurance report? (scroll down a bit in the article linked here, to about 1/3 of the way through the article)

Credit CARD Act, what’s in it for you?

The recently enacted federal Credit CARD Act gives consumers some more protection when it comes to credit card fees. Hat tip to Geri Detweiler at CreditBloggers for the following details on new federal limits on credit card fees:

. . .credit card issuers can’t charge a late payment fee (or other penalty fee) of more than $25, unless a cardholder is habitually paying late or otherwise breaking the credit card agreement. . .

And inactivity fees are banned outright.

There's much more detail in Geri's original post; click over if you need more info. CreditBloggers is an excellent resource for anyone trying to keep an eye on, or repair their credit profile. The CreditMatters blog is also excellent, although the author has been unable to post much recently.

Buy for less than you pay in rent?

The conventional wisdom (and a lot of mortgage companies’ advertising) currently says that you can buy a house for cheaper than you can rent an apartment in the Greater Phoenix area.  Is it true? Mmmmm…  Yes and no.

Case in point:


First time home buyer, starter home in the south end of the 85016 ZIP code. House is in good repair but cosmetically it’s stuck in the mid-1950s. Three bedrooms,  1 bathroom, 1 carport, average sized yard, 1100 square feet.

Current rent on 900 square foot, 2-bedroom apartment about 5 miles away from the home noted above = $615. Expected mortgage payment on the new house noted above = $505.

So, yes! You can buy for cheaper than you can rent! Except…

It’s a PITI


When you’re a renter, you pay the rent and then you’re done. But home ownership means extras.

  • P = principle: repaying the mortgage money you borrowed

  • I = interest: the convenience fee for borrowing said money

  • T = taxes: specifically property taxes on the house you buy

  • I = insurance: the lender who lent you the mortgage money will require you to have homeowners' insurance on the property

Back to our Case in Point buyer from above paying $615 in rent and expecting to pay $505 for her new mortgage. The $505 is only PI, and doesn’t include TI or anything else involved in home ownership. Taxes & insurance add another $150 monthly. So rent, $615. PITI home ownership costs, $505+ $150 = $655.

But don’t forget the WUST and the MAINT, two acronyms I made up.


Water, utilities, sewer, trash. Your new house is probably bigger than your old apartment, so you’ll spend more heating & cooling it. What about HOA fees (Home Owners Association)? Factor those in.


Homeowners also face maintenance costs that renters don’t.

  • what if the roof if it leaks? (smallish new roof, ballpark $6,000)

  • A/C and heater systems don’t last forever (ballpark cost $5,000)

  • the cost of keeping up the landscaping. Even Xeriscape yards require a bit of upkeep

  • replacing the faucets when they leak, the toilet flapper if it goes, the appliances when they go, the patio roof when it leaks… you get the idea

Home ownership is a lot more than paying rent. Yes, your new mortgage payment may be less than your old rent. But there are other costs it’s easy to forget about when dreaming about becoming a homeowner.

On the other hand, there’s a big fat tax advantage to being a homeowner: you can deduct mortgage interest paid from your federal taxes. And in your first few years, nearly your entire mortgage payment goes towards the interest you owe, so you can plan to deduct nearly all your mortgage payments from your taxes!

Thinking about becoming a homeowner? Call or email me. I’ve got the coolest little spreadsheet that lets you estimate all your home ownership expenses – PITI, WUST, MAINT and even your negotiables like cell phones, movies & entertainment and groceries -- so you can make a wise decision.

Heather Barr, Thompson’s Realty
602-999-8831 or

Save on your phone bill

Image ID 1241105 by StockExchange user gokoroko (photo credit StockExchange user gokoroko)

I stumbled on this money saving tip by accident this morning. Do you have a land line telephone in your home? I do. Never use it.

I called the phone provider - who is also my internet provider - and asked them to drop the line. Almost immediately, they offered me a 25% discount off the price of the phone portion of the bill, good for six months. I dropped my phone line altogether, but in hindsight, I probably could have negotiated for a bigger discount.

So I guess if you're seeking savings wherever you can find it (these days, who isn't), you might benefit from a quick call  to your land line phone provider.

The two main providers of land line phone numbers in the Greater Phoenix are are Cox (623-594-1000) and Qwest. (1-800-491-0118). Note that if you have a bundled service discount, you'll want to check what happens to that discount if you drop part of the service bundle.

HOA tries to collect fees after man loses home

The Arizona Republic ran a hot-button story today with a zinger of a headline: HOA still seeking fees despite man losing Chandler home.
A former Chandler resident is learning the hard way that you can't walk away from homeowners' association assessments even if you've lost your home.

In my opinion the paper does a lousy job of making the key point: a bankruptcy does away with a homeowner’s mortgage debt, but it does not strip that homeowner of the ownership of the property.

What does this have to do with HOAs?

Lately banks are sometimes just really slow to file foreclosure actions after a bankruptcy is finalized, leaving homeowners and HOAs in confusion about who owes what to whom.

HOA dues that were accumulated before the bankruptcy action are wiped out by it. But HOA dues that accumulate between the bankruptcy action and the foreclosure auction sale are still the homeowner's responsibility.

Imagine a typical HOA. They have a community park or a Tot Lot, community mailboxes, maybe a pool or rec center. They collect dues from the homeowners to maintain these public spaces. See all those little green dollar signs? Those are homeowners paying their monthly HOA dues.

Tinyville HOA paid up

It all goes along really well, unless…

Tinyville HOA missing money

… a homeowner stops paying their HOA dues.

The Tinyville HOA is now collecting a fraction less money each month. But they don’t get to stop maintaining a portion of the mailbox area, or a corner of the community park, or one lane in the community lap pool. In this way, HOAs are not unlike families: less income, same amount of bills.

Often the HOA board makes the decision to hire an attorney to file judgments against homeowners who have a lot of unpaid dues.

It’s hard to blame homeowners who stop paying their HOA dues: times are tight, jobs are scarce, money is in short supply. And truthfully the HOA has less leverage over homeowners who don’t pay than mortgage companies do. The mortgage company can take away your house. The HOA can only file a judgment against you, and possibly win garnishment of your future wages or something like that.

But it's also hard to blame the HOAs who now have produce the same results with (sometimes dramatically) less income.

If you’re facing foreclosure and your HOA is heckling you for back-owed dues, it’s pretty likely this will be unpleasant and maybe even feel like someone’s rubbing salt in your wounds.

But the reality is that homeowners should be prepared to continue paying their HOA dues until the foreclosure auction sale happens, or be prepared to face the possibility of an HOA lawsuit to get the dues back.

Unpleasant? Yes.
Fair? Debatable.
True? Absolutely.

Like disability insurance for your home

Just heard about this today.

Flagstar, in a sign of the times, has paired up with MI company Genworth to offer a low-down payment mortgage benefit designed to cover a home buyer's mortgage payments if he or she becomes involuntarily unemployed. "Job Loss Protection" covers a borrower's mortgage payment (principal, interest, taxes and insurance) of up to $2,000 a month for up to six months during their benefit period, with a maximum of three monthly payments per job-loss occurrence in the event of involuntary unemployment. The benefits are paid directly to the mortgage company just as if the borrower had made the payment, although the vesting period is 60 days after closing, and payments begin 30 days from the date of involuntary unemployment. Coverage stays in place for up to three years after the loan closes and the mortgage insurance remains in place.

A translation, in English, for non-mortgage professionals:

Flagstar is a mortgage lender. MI is mortgage insurance. Usually it’s a little add-on fee you pay every month, included as part of your mortgage payment, and it protects your lender if you default on your mortgage and go into foreclosure.

In this case, there’s (probably another) little add-on monthly fee which protects you, the homeowner, if you’re unable to make your mortgage payment because you lost your job. There’s a lot of that going around lately, so this is pretty darn cool. No idea how much this insurance costs but it’s a great idea, given the scary economy we’re all wading through.

I’m a little unclear about the time period involved: “up to six months” with a “maximum of three months payments”.  Is it 3 or 6 months you’ll pay my mortgage while I look for work? In any case, this is still a cool idea. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is soon something you can add on when you purchase a home, like you now can choose to add on a Home Warranty or not.

$8,000 Tax Credit for Buying $10,000 Home?

Question: Could a qualified person get a $8,000 tax credit to buy a $10,000 house?

Answer: In short, no. You can’t get $8,000 for buying a $10,000 house. Why?

There’s no minimum purchase, but the tax credit is written as “10% of the purchase price, up to $8,000″. Thus, if you spent $10,000 on a home, you’d get 10% of that price - or $1,000 - as a tax credit.

One other important point: there’s no such thing as a $10,000 home in metro Phoenix that one would actually want to live in. If it’s priced at $10,000 it’s either uninhabitable or located in an area where even the criminals are afraid to walk the streets at night. Phoenix is no different from any other big city in the US: the really cheap real estate is really cheap for a reason.

See this post for an example of a Phoenix-area house listed for sale at $12,500 —


This was originally a comment I wrote in reply to a reader who emailed me about our post explaining one aspect of the $8,000 federal tax credit for new home buyers.

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Of Malls and Cramdowns, A (sort-of) Op-Ed

This is from Rob Chrisman’s daily mortgage-related email which I subscribe to…

According to the Wall Street Journal [General Growth Properties, which owns 200 malls nationwide] filed a [Chapter 11] plan in bankruptcy court [recently] to restructure $9.7 billion in mortgage loans… “The pact allows mortgage holders to report the loans as performing on their books at the end of the year rather than distressed at a time when delinquency rates on commercial mortgages are rising.” Wouldn’t it be nice if residential mortgage servicers could do the same?

You have to pay to access the online WSJ article, so see the Boston Globe online:

General Growth Properties’ lenders have agreed to modify loan terms

The mortgage lenders took cramdowns: with the stroke of a bankruptcy judge’s pen, GGP now owes less than $9.7 billion in mortgages on their malls, because those buildings are no longer worth $9.7B.

Cramdowns are allowed in commercial mortgages, and from what I hear they’re also OK for second and vacation homes and for boats and RVs.

This is going to be a political statement and we shy away from them purposely here at The Phoenix Agents, but I still don’t understand why a homeowner’s primary residence is the only big-ticket mortgage that can’t be crammed down.

You know, I take it back. Actually I do understand why: homeowners are not sending high-paid, pro-cramdown lobbyists to Washington to counter the high-paid anti-cramdown lobbyists sent there by the banks.

Walking Away from a Mortgage

I’ve had several phone calls in the past 10 days or so that are truly worrying. These have been from homeowners who aren’t having trouble paying their mortgage but say they are thinking about walking away from the house anyhow.

Financial writer John Maudlin noted this trend in his recent email:

Another problem is that with home prices continuing to fall, more and more borrowers, who are essentially just renting their mortgages now because they will never see any home equity, are walking away.

NPR also noted an interesting side-effect of these so-called “walkers”:

Foreclosure leaves a large black mark on a homeowner's credit rating. It might be as long as 10 years before they can qualify for another mortgage.

But Nicole Gelinas — a financial analyst, [contributor to The Wall Street Journal] and contributing editor of City Journal — argues that if enough people walk away from their homes, then banks won't blacklist all of them. (emphasis by ThePhoenixAgents, not N Gelinas)

I don’t actually have anything witty to say about this topic. Lately it’s just the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night. Figured I’d toss it out there and see what folks are thinking.

What’s your take? Would you walk away from your home – even if you can afford the mortgage payments – just because the value has fallen so far you don’t have equity? Please comment.

Update 10:11 am Arizona time: Twitter Poll is in progress.

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Produce the Note, More Information

Back in late February I wrote a piece about using a tactic called “Produce the Note” to prevent your mortgage lender from foreclosing on your home.

A very nice gentleman called me yesterday and left me a voicemail, reminding me that I hadn’t posted the follow up piece I promised. Thanks for reading, sir! I’m sorry, and you’re right. I neglected to follow up.

The attorney I said I was going to call is Diane Drain. She’s a local attorney whom I met at a seminar she presented a few years back which was about foreclosure auction sales. Diane Drain has an excellent website with lots of information and sample forms you can file in court.

I put in a call to Diane’s office and hope she’ll have a few comments for The Phoenix Agents’ readers. If she’s able to speak with me, I’ll post her thoughts here!

Here’s what I think of Produce the Note, after letting it stew around in the back of my head for a couple of months. First, using the tactic in Arizona requires that you file a lawsuit. In my opinion you should hire an attorney to file a lawsuit, so Produce the Note isn’t free.

Second, Produce the Note isn’t very likely to make your mortgage lender roll over and cry Uncle. It’s a stalling tactic at best. If you reasonably think that you can save up enough money to come current on your mortgage (including all back payments, fees and penalties) if you just had more time, Produce the Note might help.

But instead of filing a Produce the Note lawsuit, you could also just hire an attorney to negotiate with your lender on a Forbearance Agreement. (Forbearance is a legal term for “gimme more time and then I’ll pay you back.”)

Bear in mind, I’m not an attorney and I don’t even play one on TV. If you’re seriously thinking about using Produce the Note, you should hire yourself the best attorney you can find.

Improve your credit score the easy way: Rent Better Credit

I heard something about this last year, but either it wasn't explained to me very well or I just flat out didn't believe it. Today there was an article on discussing it in detail, and there is actually some argument about whether or not it's legal.

Here's the quick version. Your credit score isn't good enough to qualify you for the loan you want, so you contact a "credit broker", who adds you as an authorized user to someone else's account who has excellent credit. Next month when the creditor updates their activity to the credit reporting agencies, your credit score jumps by 30 points or more, simple as that. Need to raise it higher, just get added to more accounts. The article cites people whose scores have risen by over 100 points – enough to make a marginal credit risk into a blue chip, best-interest-rate-available customer!

The argument for this being legal is that people are allowed to add anyone to their account at anytime; there's no rule saying an authorized user has to be related to the account holder. And since everyone is playing within the rules set up by the credit card companies and the credit reporting agencies, how can it be wrong?

The truth is different – in my opinion this is out and out fraud! Authorized User means a user of your account AUTHORIZED TO USE YOUR ACCOUNT. Where's the gray area? The people renting their credit are NOT allowing the other party to access their account, or to make purchases, or anything else. They don't even know each other. The people paying to get added to someone else's account in a false manner are actually withholding information their lender should know.

If it walks like a duck, and it talks like a duck...

- Chris Butterworth