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Amid mountain of paperwork, shortcuts and forgeries mar foreclosure process

From foreclosure to food shortages, the economic downturn set in motion by the financial crisis of 2008 is having a broad and deeply-felt global impact.

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 2:36 AM

The nation's overburdened foreclosure system is riddled with faked documents, forged signatures and lenders who take shortcuts reviewing borrower's files, according to court documents and interviews with attorneys, housing advocates and company officials.

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The problems, which are so widespread that some judges approving the foreclosures ignore them, are coming to light after Ally Financial, the country's fourth-biggest mortgage lender, halted home evictions in 23 states this week.

During the housing boom, millions of homeowners got easy access to mortgages while providing virtually no proof of their income or background. Now, as millions of Americans are being pushed out of the homes they can no longer afford, the foreclosure process is producing far more paperwork than anyone can read and making it vulnerable to fraud.

Ally Financial is now double-checking to make sure all documents are in order after lawsuits uncovered that a single employee of the company's GMAC mortgage unit, a 41-year-old named Jeffrey Stephan, signed off on 10,000 foreclosure papers a month without checking whether the information justified an eviction.

Many of the homeowners in fact might have been in default. Some might have been unfairly targeted. But the flawed process is creating an opening for borrowers to contest some of the more than 2 million foreclosures that have taken place since the real estate crisis began.

The company sought to play down the impact of Stephan's actions, saying this week that what he did amounted to a "technical" error but that the documents themselves were "factually accurate." Ally said it had no further comment Wednesday.

Forgeries

Ally wasn't the only major lender that had a foreclosure process dependent on a few corporate bureaucrats.

Beth Ann Cottrell said in a sworn deposition in May that she signed off on thousands of foreclosures a month for JPMorgan Chase even though she did not verify the accuracy of the information.

In one instance in Palm Beach, Fla., Cottrell signed off on two documents that stated conflicting amounts of mortgage, the court testimony states. Cottrell claimed that both were signed by the borrower at closing. But the homeowner recognized that her signature had been forged, her attorney Christopher Immel said. The attorney added that such forgeries are common among the cases he's seen. JPMorgan Chase declined to comment.

In Georgia, an employee of a document processing company, Linda Green, for years claimed to be executives of Bank of America, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and dozens of other lenders while signing off on tens of thousands of foreclosure affidavits. In many cases, her signature appeared to be forged by different employees.

Green worked for a foreclosure document company owned by Lender Processing Services. The company is being investigated by a U.S. attorney in Florida for allegedly using improper documentation to speed foreclosures.

Lenders have already started to withdraw foreclosures that had Green's name on them.


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