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Speed equaled money in foreclosure 'machine'

Law firms were rewarded with additional bonuses from document processing companies if they met deadlines for preparing and filing foreclosures in courts. One of the nation's major processors, Lending Processing Services in Jacksonville, Fla., confirmed that it had paid such bonuses but said it no longer offers them. The company is under investigation by federal and state law enforcement.

Meanwhile, Fannie Mae imposes a $100 fee on contractors for each day they fail to notify the firm that the foreclosure process was a success and that it has the right to move ahead with the resale of a home. On top of that, Fannie charges a penalty - which escalates for larger mortgages - on contractors who delay selling off such properties.

Fannie declined to comment on these fees. But in a memo to loan servicers dated Aug. 31, Gwen Muse-Evans, Fannie Mae's chief risk officer, warned mortgage servicers that fees may be imposed based on "the length of the delay and any costs that are directly attributable to the delay."

Speed is also rewarded by the nation's credit-rating agencies, which give higher grades to mortgage service firms that accelerate the foreclosure process and generally hand out lower grades to those who hold onto delinquent loans. A Fitch Ratings manual calls the speed of foreclosures "the key driver in the servicer rating," according to a report by the National Consumer Law Center.

Untrained hires

To keep up with the crush of foreclosures, document processors and mortgage service firms rushed to hire anyone they could - hair stylists, Wal-Mart clerks, assembly-line workers who made blinds - and gave them key roles in their foreclosure departments without formal training, according to court papers.

A number of these employees have testified that they did not really know what a mortgage was, couldn't define "affidavit," and knew they were lying when they signed documents related to foreclosures, according to depositions of 150 employees for mortgage companies taken by the law firm run by Ticktin, the Florida lawyer.

These problems were compounded as banks began to rely more heavily on computer systems to quickly move people through the foreclosure process. That automation came at a price for the homeowners who had difficulty fighting incorrect decisions by inexperienced, anonymous employees who took what was in the computer as fact even when homeowners said there were data-entry errors.

"These guys were caught off-guard with the onslaught of foreclosures," said Clifford Rossi, a former chief risk officer for consumer lending for Citigroup who now teaches at the business school at the University of Maryland. "So there were a lot of errors."

In one case in Fort Lauderdale in July, for instance, Bank of America foreclosed on a man after a computer glitch and resold his home even though he had paid his mortgage in full.

Homeowners and their attorneys say the automated system especially hurts borrowers who may qualify for loan modifications through federal rescue programs.

Chandra Anand, 59, a telecommunications consultant from Germantown, called his lender in the fall of 2008, before he missed any payments, to warn the company that his wife's open-heart surgery might cause the family financial difficulty. He was told that in order to qualify for a loan modification he needed to miss payments. So he did and applied for a modification. He never heard back from his lender until he got a foreclosure notice in January 2009.

Every time he calls his lender to resolve his situation, an official tells him "to be patient, that it could take 60 more days to review things," Anand said. "It's now been a year and a half."

Andrea Bopp Stark, a lawyer with the Molleur Law Office in Biddeford, Maine, said that a number of her clients should be eligible for loan modifications through a Treasury Department program but that servicers "are in such a state of disarray that they often can't give homeowners basic answers about the state of their loan modification request."

Then a few weeks or months later, the same servicers evict homeowners as if those applications were never filed.

"Their whole bureaucratic procedure," Stark said, "is working against helping homeowners."

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