the audit

The Landscape of the Foreclosure Scandal

Good reporting finds plenty of nondelinquent borrowers caught in a nightmare
October 20, 2010

So what does it look like when the foreclosure fraud machine rolls over homeowners who aren’t even in default?

Remember we’ve been told by folks like Jamie Dimon and The Wall Street Journal editorial board that such unthinkable things aren’t happening. But thanks to some good on-the-ground reporting from the press, we know of several instances already.

Not to minimize the reporting involved here, believe me, but this stuff doesn’t appear too hard to find.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Teresa Dixon Murray and Michelle Jarboe have one of the best stories I’ve seen. They’ve got three different egregious cases:

Michael and Pamella Negrea have never been late on a mortgage payment in the 15 years they’ve owned their home in Eastlake. But they’ve been foreclosed on three times.

Martin and Kirsten Davis, meanwhile, lost their home in Cleveland to foreclosure two years ago. The reason: a mess that started when they accidentally paid 14 cents too little on their monthly payment.

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And Michael Rendes of Berea had his mortgage sold last year to Bank of America. The bank foreclosed on him in November, after insisting for months that it didn’t hold his loan and wouldn’t accept his payments.

Now that’s what I call a WTF lede. Is this banana republic stuff or what? And it goes a long way toward knocking down once and for all the apologies for the mortgage industry’s actions.

Among those whose foreclosure is in limbo for the moment are Michael and Carol Rendes, both 49, who bought their 1,350-square-foot home in Berea in January 2006. But the couple says the foreclosure isn’t even justified.

Their loan originally was with subprime lender Argent Mortgage, then LaSalle Bank, then Wilkshire Financial. The loan was sold to Bank of America in September 2009, although the couple said they weren’t initially notified. They made their September and October payments to Wilkshire.

“I had no clue. I just made my payment,” Michael Rendes said. “I knew I had a mortgage.” Wilkshire then told him the loan had been sold. He called Bank of America many times, but bank employees couldn’t find the couple in the system. They tried using names, Social Security numbers, the parcel number, dates of birth, everything.

The Plain Dealer goes a little overboard here:

Now, it’s possible that thousands or even millions could have lost their homes in error.

Yes, anything’s possible, and we have to find out how many it has happened to. But we just don’t know the scope yet, and it’s better not to speculate on it like that until we have some idea.

The paper shows how to get at this better in an accompanying story on the couple who got foreclosed on three times despite never missing a payment:

“I can’t image how many people lost their houses who didn’t deserve it,” Michael Negrea said.

The couple is drained from years of back and forth with GMAC.

“I think a lot of people would have just given up,” said Pamella Negrea, a graphic designer. “Nobody believes us. People think, ‘A bank wouldn’t file for foreclosure if the bank wasn’t right.’ “

Meantime, the Miami Herald has a good story on a woman who owns her house free and clear but is being foreclosed on because her ex-husband, who hadn’t lived there in a decade, and is blind and illiterate, took out a fradulent note on the house with the help of a crooked appraiser. Now Deutsche Bank wants to push her out, even though the place is a teardown deemed “unlivable” by Habitat for Humanity. Why?

The house is indeed a wreck, but because it has a Fannie Mae-backed mortgage, the bank could simply carry out foreclosure proceedings, and then put in a claim to recoup the $102,000 owed on it. Because Fannie Mae was taken over by the federal government in 2008, taxpayers would ultimately pick up the tab.

The Herald’s‘s Toluse Olorunnipa is good to point out that this was an Argent loan:

Argent, at one point the nation’s largest lender to people with low credit scores, crumbled under the weight of the subprime lending crisis and was sold to Citibank in 2007. A previous Miami Herald review of Argent mortgages found widespread evidence of mortgage fraud, with one-third of Argent loans in Miami-Dade County eventually falling into foreclosure.

And the paper ties it in to the more recent foreclosure scandal:

As Deutsche Bank motions for a summary judgment in the case, it suffers from many of the same problems that have led to stalled foreclosures across the country.

After acquiring the loan from the original lender, the bank’s representatives profess little knowledge about the details of the home loan, and its lawyers have not been able to close the case for four years.

A Miami-Dade County judge briefly threw out the case in July after a Deutsche Bank attorney failed to show up in court.

The Wall Street Journal found some anecotes, too, in an excellent story that calls BS on the banks. I was sharply critical of the paper a couple of weeks ago for not being in the game on this story, and it’s good to see it pick it up a lot in the last several days. I love this lede:

Some banks say their reviews of mortgage-paperwork procedures have failed to detect any borrowers who were foreclosed on wrongly. Some court filings, loan documents and mea culpa letters from mortgage servicers tell a different story.

And here’s one of its anecdotes:

In a Dade City, Fla., courtroom on Tuesday, Leah Aaseng tried to persuade a state-court judge to throw out Bank of America’s recent foreclosure of her five-year-old house in nearby Zephyrhills.

Ms. Aaseng told Judge Susan Gardner that the bank went through with foreclosure proceedings even though she had received a mortgage modification from the lender.

The bank even cashed her August mortgage payment two days after the foreclosure, Ms. Aaseng said. Judge Gardner agreed to the monthlong delay requested by the lawyer representing Bank of America.

“This is a big mess,” the judge said with a sigh as she signed paperwork in the case.

Add it all up and it looks ugly out there. Here’s hoping the press keeps digging up these cases and putting them front and center.

And send me an email if you see reports in your local papers.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.