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The Nation's Housing: Mortgage experts sound alarm at massive identity theft, data breaches

The Target breach alone could touch as many as 70 million credit and debit card customers, according to the company. Neiman Marcus said that data on 1.1 million of its customers may be vulnerable to fraud.
Published: February 1, 2014
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The numbers of affected consumers are as yet impossible to predict, but mortgage credit experts warn that the recent massive data breaches at Target, Neiman Marcus and other retailers could have significant side impacts on some real estate transactions in the coming months, as damaged credit files depress scores and jeopardize loan applications and home sales.

The Target breach alone could touch as many as 70 million credit and debit card customers, according to the company. Neiman Marcus said that data on 1.1 million of its customers may be vulnerable to fraud. Data security researchers report that at least six other merchants have experienced data breaches from point-of-sale malware similar to what was used in the Target thefts.

Both Target and Neiman Marcus have sought to reach out to customers and have offered free credit-monitoring services. But credit experts said it's likely that given the sheer size of the data thefts, large numbers of people either have not taken advantage of these offers or have, for varying reasons, not been aware that their data may have been compromised.

So what are the potential blowbacks on home sales and mortgage applications? Start with the basics. Identity theft, if not corrected quickly, can make a mess of anyone's credit bureau files. Though victims may not be liable for the unauthorized debts racked up, their credit reports — and in turn their credit scores — can be damaged for weeks or months.

Listen to Terry Clemans, executive director of the National Consumer Reporting Association, the primary trade group that represents independent credit-reporting companies serving the mortgage industry. Clemans said that mass identity heists such as those at Target and Neiman Marcus have the potential to create “havoc on credit files for as long as it takes for the consumer to document that the accounts are due to identity theft and get them removed from the file.

“The impact on credit scores, although short term, is devastating because they are current defaults and trigger a big hit to the score. With the sizes of the breaches, this could be painful for a long time.”

Sarah Davies, senior vice president for VantageScore Solutions, one of the two major providers of consumer score models used by banks and other creditors, confirmed that unauthorized debts on credit reports “can have quite a big impact” and could interfere with certain transactions you want to undertake, such as buying a home or applying for a mortgage.

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