Mortgage servicers are middlemen who process the mortgage payments from homeowners and direct the money to the banks or investors who hold the loans. With the current problems in the mortgage market, banks and the federal governments have reached consensus to help homeowners, but often the mortgage servicers, having the ultimate power to modify a mortgage, refuse to “play ball”. Further, they are increasingly turning to consumer abuses to collect mortgage payments, at a time when working with and helping out distressed consumers would obviously be in everyone’s best interests.
Mortgage servicers are sometimes stand-alone companies, but sometimes are the branches of major banks and lenders. Brennan, Wiener & Assoc. handled a case recently against Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, in its capacity as a mortgage servicer servicing a mortgage first belonging to GE Capital, and then later to Freddie Mac. A San Bernardino, California jury returned a verdict to the plaintiffs for over $800,000.00 for a two-year pattern of false credit reporting. Fisher v. Wells Fargo, San Bernardino Superior Court Case No. RCV 074 822, currently on appeal at the California Fourth District Court of Appeal.
What the Fisher case teaches is that major banks like to collect the fees from mortgage servicing but do not want to put any actual money into customer service or straightening out problems. Mortgage servicing is all automated, and if you really want to wait on hold sometime, try calling your mortgage servicer to straighten out a problem.
Other lawsuits and attorneys general have become aware of this growing problem. Recently, lawsuits alleging loan modification delays and illegal collection practices have been brought on behalf of consumers by both private attorneys and by attorneys general. Recent studies reported that at least 38 mortgage servicers had been sued for charging illegal fees, forcing homeowners to buy needless insurance, illegal collection practices, confusing customers about the federal loan modification program, and foreclosing on homeowners with pending loan modification applications. Additionally these mortgage servicers also have been criticized for not helping homeowners promptly, causing homeowners to pay more late fees which work out beneficially for the companies.
President Barack Obama announced the Home Affordable Modification Program, in March 2009, to help an estimated 4 million homeowners avoid foreclosure. Under this program, mortgage servicers will earn fees to help homeowners facing foreclosure reduce their monthly mortgage payments. The mortgage servicers are the only link between borrowers and banks or investors and therefore they are in the best position to modify the loans under this new program. The objective is to adjust mortgages so homeowners’ payments remain affordable.
But, in a proverbial sea of exploding adjustable-rate mortgages that homeowners cannot afford, only about 200,000 mortgage loan modifications are under way. The mortgage servicers don’t have enough financial incentives to modify the mortgages as they only earn on average of ¼ to ½ percent of the value of the loans they service. Added to this is their natural incentive to keep costs down by understaffing their loan modification divisions and their customer service divisions.
The larger the mortgage payment, the more the mortgage servicers earn, and they earn less if the loan is modified, which frequently involves lowering the interest rate or taking other steps to reduce monthly mortgage payments.
An analysis by the Associated Press shows that of the 38 servicers that are being paid by the government as part of the federal loan modification program, 30 are facing lawsuits for charging illegally high fees, prematurely foreclosing on homes and engaging in illegal collection practices. These are violations of laws protecting homeowners in foreclosure and laws that prevent credit reporting and debt collection abuses. Fourteen of these companies have suits against them for misleading homeowners about their eligibility for the loan modification program and how much their new monthly payment might be. Some are even accused of having advised homeowners to not make mortgage payments to increase their chances of qualifying for modifications, and then foreclosing anyway.
Part of the problem is that there is little regulation of the mortgage servicing industry and therefore there are significant abuses that go unchecked. During the housing boom these servicers started bidding for business to collect from people less likely to make timely payments, and started profiting, as late payments became a reality. Now, however, they are realizing that they bid more than they can expect to recover from a pool of loans and therefore new charges, overcharges or other abuses have become more prevalent.
For California consumers, if you believe you have been the victim of unfair credit reporting, unfair debt collection practices or other consumer abuses, please contact our firm in La Crescenta, Ca.