As much as I’ve seen a lot of financial services industry misconduct at close range, sometimes even a cynic like me is not prepared for how bad things can be. And mortgage abuse is turning out to be one of those areas.
I’ve been in contact for over the last six months with attorneys involved in foreclosure defense. Unlike the foreclosure mills, which seem to coin money, the attorneys on this front are either laboring pro bono or making considerably less than they could in other lines of work. They also can back up their views with depositions and trial transcripts.
One thing they stress is that a significant number of their clients facing foreclosure has made every single mortgage payment. . Read that again.
Now how can that be? How can that square with the banks’ assertion that in every instance, their foreclosures were warranted, that the borrower was hopelessly behind?
It’s actually very simple. It’s called servicing errors and fraud. And whether by mistake or design, when a borrower gets caught in the servicer hall of mirrors of compounding fees and charges, there is no way to appeal and pretty much no way out.
Let’s look at how this begins. A payment is credited as being late. It might actually legitimately be late, the borrower might have neglected to send it in on time. Or the bank might have been slow to process it. That might be simple queuing meets bad controls, or it might be deliberate. Servicers have been found to delay posting checks to incur late fees. Unless the borrower incurs the cost of sending mail via a service that provides proof of time of delivery, the bank can always claim the payment arrived late.
Let’s say the late fee is $75. It will be charged against the next month’s payment. But the borrower doesn’t know that he owes more that month. He gets a mortgage coupon and sends his regular payment in.
Now the servicer starts playing the sort of tricks practiced elsewhere in retail banking. Under the terms of the loan and Federal law, monthy payments are to be applied to principal and interest first, fees second. But the bank applies it to fees first. This makes his second month come up short. He gets charged a fee for insufficiency, and perhaps a late fee too.
Once the borrower has had two late fees, the servicer is often required by the pooling and servicing agreement to get a broker price opinion (BPO). This is a typically $250 exercise in form in which a broker drives by, takes a couple of pictures of the house, and offers a guesstimate of what it might be worth.
Many servicers double dip and also charge the BPO to the borrower as well. So the fees and arrerage charges and interest charges are compounding at a faster rate now.
It takes a remarkably short amount of time for pyramiding fees to add up to a few thousand dollars, unbeknownst to the borrower, until he gets a call from the servicer, or worse, a foreclosure notice.
This is where it gets even better. Even when the borrower hires an attorney, it is remarkably difficult to get the servicer to disgorge its records showing the borrower payment history and its fees and charges. I’ve also been told by attorneys that the reports are difficult to decipher and reconcile with the borrower’s records of payments that have cleared his account. So unless the attorney is tenacious, or has been down this path before, he may not realize that the borrower isn’t nuts when he says he was late only once, maybe twice at most, and doesn’t understand how they bank is now foreclosing.
In the first part of the Senate Banking Committee hearings on mortgage modifications and foreclosure, Diane Thompson of the Consumer Law Center and Professor Adam Levitin forcefully disputed the banks’ claim that all foreclosures were warranted. Each pointed to servicer driven foreclosures as well as consumers being instructed by their serivcer to become delinquent so as to qualify for a mod program, being led to believe they would qualify (and even encouraged to use the money saved to pay down other debt), then either foreclosed upon while the mod was under consideration, or denied the mod and foreclosed upon. And to add insult to injury, homeowners who are denied “permanent” mods are not only charged the difference between their reduced payments and their regular amount due, but they are charged late fees, which per our example above, compound in nasty ways.
Thompson, who defends borrowers herself, estimates that servicer-driven foreclosures represented about 50% of the cases she handled. The attorneys I have been dealing with put the estimate even higher, for the simple reason that servicer errors also led to refis that failed.
Remember how this pattern would have worked pre-bust. Borrower finds out from servicer that he is, for reasons he cannot fathom and cannot get the servicer to explain, $4000 behind on his mortgage. He can’t swing that now, and if he only pays part of the overdue amount down, it will quickly compound back up to a big bad number. So sooner or later, his only way out is a refi.
I had always assumed cash-out refis (where the borrower took out a mortgage on a refi that was bigger than his previous mortgages) were to pay down credit card debt, invest in home upgrades, or fund consumption. But at least a portion of those refis were to pay off the mortgage to prevent a foreclosure due to an inabilty to make up for a major arrearage. And some of those were servicer induced.
This pattern of servicer abuse is far from new. I hope readers will watch the second installment of the Senate Banking Committe hearings on the mortgage mess (the Senators were quite entertaining in their first go on this topic), this Wednesday at 9:30 AM. One of the witnesses, Kurt Eggert, law professor at the Chapman University School of Law, must feel like a Cassandra. He was writing about subpime origination fraud in 2002, and in a 2007 article, “Limiting Abuse and Opportunism by Mortgage Servicers,” goes through a sad and familiar litany of servicer misconduct: attempting to foreclose when borrowers were current (!), not giving borrowers time to get current, charging late fees when payments were made on time, improper force-placed insurance, and chicanery with escrow funds. As Eggert pointed out:
Late fees on timely payments are common when consumers are making payments through a ankruptcy plan. Moreover, some servicers have added false fees and charges not authorized by law or contract to their monthly payment demands, relying on borrower ignorance of the exact amout owed…Some servicers may add a fee by conducting unnecessary property inspections, having an agent drive by even when the borrower is not in default, or conducting multiple inspections during a single period of default to charge the resulting multiple fees….
Moreover, servicers can frustrate any attempts to sort out which fees are genuine. On McCormack v. Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., when the borrower challenged Chase Manhattan Corporation’s insistence on collecting disallowed attorneys’ fees and mortgage payments that had been cured in a bankrutpcy, the servicer subjected the borrower to what the court called “a barrage of totally meaningless and in fact misleading printouts” that was “”truly egregious and outrageous conduct”. The servicer repeatedly promised to correct its errors, but did not do so.
Servicer bad conduct is a long-standing problem, but in a rising housing market, no one much cared if the banks were effectively stripping borrower equity to pad their profits. And perhaps even worse, many people are still inclined to trust banks when they trot out their party line. Recall the bunk their representatives offered with touching shows of concern in the pre-Thanksgiving Senate and House hearing on the mortgage mess: their policies are pro-consumer, they don’t make money on foreclosures (!), any problems are “mistakes” and they of course correct them as soon as they become aware of them. The over-decade long record of persistent servicer abuses shows this spin to be pure fabrication. The sooner the media and the public learn to assume banks are liars until they offer solid evidence to the contrary, the better off we will all be.