Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Like Hiring the Wolves to Watch the Hens or Capitalism at it's Finest

takes 3 minutes to read.

Firms are getting billions, but homeowners still in trouble

By Chris Adams | McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- The federal government is engaged in a massive mortgage modification program that's on track to send billions in tax dollars to many of the very companies that judges or regulators have cited in recent years for abusive mortgage practices.

The firms, called mortgage servicers, have been cited for badgering, manipulating or lying to their customers; sticking them with bogus fees, or improperly foreclosing on them.

Mortgage servicers are the middlemen between homeowners and the investors that hold their mortgages, collecting homeowners' checks and disbursing payments for the mortgages, property tax and insurance. They're a necessary player for any modification.

The reliance on such companies points to an ironic paradox for federal regulators: Cleaning up the nation's financial crisis often rewards the firms that helped create the mess. Those Wall Street banks and mortgage servicing companies argue that they're best positioned to repair the damage they've helped cause. In the case of the mortgage program, the firms getting the taxpayers' money are, after all, the firms that control the troubled mortgages.

To make matters worse, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' watchdog, has said that the Treasury Department hasn't done enough to oversee the companies participating in what's known as the Home Affordable Modification Program, which emerged from the bank bailout bill Congress passed last fall.

The modification program has been slow to get off the ground. Since it began this spring, only 12 percent of a potential 3 million delinquent mortgages have begun the process of being reworked, or put into "a trial modification," according to Treasury Department data through August, the most recent available.

"We've consistently been behind this problem," said Mark Pearce, North Carolina's chief deputy commissioner of banks, who works with a state-level group of attorneys general from across the country. "Two years ago, maybe some were caught by surprise. But we still haven't gotten to a point where the servicers have demonstrated an ability to handle the problem."

Although it's early in the Treasury Department's program, housing advocates say the servicer industry for years has resisted helping customers with modifications. Donna and Ronnie Fruia, of Troutman, N.C., learned firsthand how difficult it can be.

The couple was in the midst of a series of health crises, and three members of the family — the couple's son, Donna's mother and Ronnie — were in the hospital.

It was then that Donna got an urgent call that somebody from her mortgage company, CitiFinancial, had just showed up in her husband's hospital room, where he was recovering from a stroke.

"They said, 'Some guy's in there aggravating him,'" she said.

"At the time, I couldn't even really talk that good," Ronnie said. "But he wanted me to sign a bunch of papers."

The Fruias had been trying to get a mortgage modification from CitiFinancial. The company, however, was pushing the Fruias to accept a modification that wouldn't have cut their interest rate, they said.

Only after the episode in the hospital room and the involvement of state regulators did CitiFinancial cut the mortgage's interest rate from 11.5 percent to 5 percent, lowering their monthly payment from $985 to $602. The process took from the start of the year until July.

"They were the perfect candidate for someone with a subprime rate getting a modification," said Henrietta Thompson, who as housing coordinator for United Family Services, a United Way-funded organization in Charlotte, helped the Fruias. "I know if the banking commissioner hadn't gotten involved, it wouldn't have happened."

While CitiFinancial, a unit of Citigroup Inc. — one of the largest recipients of TARP bailout funds — said it couldn't talk about specific customers, it's "pleased" that the case was resolved.

In 2007, an assistant attorney general in Iowa, Patrick Madigan, analyzed the looming mortgage meltdown and found that mortgage service companies have a "highly automated process, spending as little time as possible on an individual loan and preferably no time actually talking to the customer."

"Too many homeowners face foreclosure without receiving any meaningful assistance by their mortgage servicer, a reality that is growing worse rather than better," said a report from the State Foreclosure Prevention Working Group.

Under the Treasury Department's mortgage modification program, three parties can participate: the company that owns the loan, the company that services the loan, and the homeowner. All get a portion of the more than $20 billion that the federal government currently estimates it could spend to keep homes out of foreclosure.

While the Treasury said it's necessary to take in as many mortgage service companies as possible, the GAO found that the department wasn't doing enough to monitor the process.

In a July report, the GAO said that the department had "significant gaps in its oversight structure," and was short-staffed in the office monitoring the modification program. As of July — eight months into the program — the Treasury had filled fewer than half the positions in a key modification office. (Many of those jobs have since been filled, the department said.)

Beyond that, the government had conducted "readiness reviews" of only seven of 27 mortgage servicers the GAO examined; no more were planned. The reviews only included interviews with senior executives — and the information gathered wasn't verified.

"Treasury cannot identify, assess and address risks associated with servicers that lack the capacity to fulfill all program requirements," the GAO said.

Several companies in the Treasury program have been cited by judges or regulators for having engaged in improper behavior with their customers.

They include Select Portfolio Servicing Inc., a Utah-based company formerly known as Fairbanks Capital Corp.; Countrywide Home Loans Inc., now a unit of Bank of America Corp.; Carrington Mortgage Services LLC, based in California; Saxon Mortgage Services Inc., a unit of Morgan Stanley; EMC Mortgage Corp., now a subsidiary of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.; and Green Tree Servicing, a Minnesota company.

Ocwen Financial Corp., a Florida-based company that services more than 300,000 mortgages nationwide, could receive more than $200 million in TARP payments.

"Ocwen has screwed up my finances so bad you can't believe it," said Brad Rhoton, whose rental properties in the Houston suburbs are part of a nationwide lawsuit against Ocwen. "It's been the most maddening process you can imagine."

Rhoton's lawsuit charges that Ocwen constantly misapplied Rhoton's mortgage payments and tacked on unnecessary fees and insurance, causing his accounts to fall behind.

Over the years, Ocwen has lost other lawsuits and has been slapped down by a federal judge for its conduct.

In one Texas bankruptcy case, for example, a federal judge blasted Ocwen after it tried to pass the cost of a $1,000 sanction onto the customer it was cited for mistreating. When the judge found out, he said, "Ocwen's course of conduct in this proceeding bordered on the outrageous." He fined the company an additional $27,500.

The case was far from isolated, however. A jury in Galveston, Texas, ordered the company to pay $11.5 million, and one down the coast in Corpus Christi ordered it to pay $3 million for unfairly foreclosing on homeowners (both cases were then settled in the appeals process for undisclosed amounts).

In both cases, the plaintiffs were on the edge financially, and so when Ocwen added extra fees to their accounts. they quickly fell behind.

That was part of their strategy, plaintiffs' attorneys said. One of the key witnesses before both juries was a former Ocwen account officer who said the company trained its sights on customers who had substantial equity in their homes. In those cases, the company had the most to gain if customers lost their homes in foreclosure.

"We didn't treat the people very well, but the money was pretty good," the former account officer, Ron Davis, testified during one of the trials. (Davis couldn't be reached for further comment.)

The motive, he said, was simple: force people into foreclosure as a way to earn higher bonuses.

"We would call the customers and ask them what bridge they were going to live under," Davis testified.

1 comment:

mortgage modification said...

The most common mortgage modifications are listed below:

lowering the mortgage interest rate
reducing the mortgage principal balance
fixing adjustable interest rates within the mortgage
increasing the loan term throughout the mortgage
forgiveness of payment defaults and fees
or any combination of the above

Check out this public service site: http://mortgagemodificationinfo.org