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FTC wins Countrywide settlement, but celebrates a little early

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, June 10, 2010; A14

It's an all-too-familiar Washington story. Officials call a news conference to pat themselves on the back for righting a wrong they shouldn't have allowed in the first place.

Meanwhile, the hapless victims are left to ponder what might have been had those officials been more vigilant.

It happened again this week when the Federal Trade Commission announced that it had secured from Bank of America a $108 million settlement to refund consumers who had mortgages serviced by Countrywide Home Loans and BAC Home Loans Servicing, which formerly did business as Countrywide Home Loans Servicing.

The FTC says Countrywide charged excessive fees for services such as property inspections, inflated the amount owed when borrowers filed for bankruptcy protection, and didn't tell people when new fees or charges were being added to their loans.

Some homeowners, for example, were charged as much as $2,500 for trustee fees, even though the going rate for such a service was in the range of $600. "Just mowing a lawn could result in a $300 bill to a homeowner," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said.

The settlement is one of the largest ever for the FTC, which overseas non-banking functions such as loan servicing. But a little humility would have been nice.

FTC Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch actually said Bank of America, which purchased Countrywide in July 2008, was a hero. Rosch gushed that the bank had stepped up and negotiated a settlement that was "absolutely sterling."

I don't see it.

To me, a hero is someone who makes extra effort, does something special. Bank of America simply did what it was supposed to do after acquiring a company that allegedly fleeced borrowers trying to hold on to their homes. You don't get extra credit for doing the right thing when you own a company that did something wrong.

When one of my children misbehaves and I have to apologize for his or her actions, accolades are not in order for stepping up and taking responsibility.

Bank of America knew of Countrywide's ugly past. So it's not a hero for paying Countrywide customers what they were overcharged.

The bank said it settled to avoid the expense of litigating the case. "The settlement allows us to put all of these matters behind us," the company said in a statement, adding that the settlement was "no admission of any wrongdoing." Everyone and every agency that didn't do enough to stem the housing crisis that crushed borrowers, investors and good-standing homeowners should be hanging their heads.

Yes, the FTC is making somebody pay now. But this does little to help people such as Robin Atchley and her husband John. The couple from Waleska, Ga., allege that Countrywide gouged them with fees and charges and threatened foreclosure if they didn't pay up. They tried filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection but even that didn't shield them from a steady stream of pumped-up fees. The couple finally gave up fighting and sold their home.

"Our house is gone," Robin Atchley said in the same news conference in which the FTC announced the settlement. "There is nothing that anyone can do to change that." If measured by the financial abuse people experienced, the settlement doesn't seem like such a victory, does it?

On the other hand, let's hope this action by the FTC does make a difference going forward. Leibowitz said he hopes the financial overhaul legislation still stuck in Congress will expand the FTC's powers so it can make rules more easily and respond to practices that harm consumers.

Leibowitz said more than 200,000 people will be reimbursed for overcharges on loans that were serviced by Countrywide before Bank of America acquired it.

If you're eligible for a refund as part of the $108 million settlement, you'll receive a letter, according to the FTC. Go to http://www.ftc.gov/countrywide if you want to keep track of the case.

The settlement also requires that the Countrywide loan-servicing operation make significant changes in handling bankruptcy cases. For example, the servicer must send borrowers in Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings a monthly notice with information about what amounts are owed. The servicer also has to come up with a program that ensures the accuracy of loan information filed in those Chapter 13 cases.

"I'm hopeful the settlement will help other families avoid the nightmare we went through and save their homes," Atchley said.

When Atchley's words come true, then that'll be something to crow about.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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