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Bank of America to triple number of centers working with distressed homeowners

Bank of America announced Thursday that it will create dozens of new service centers to work with distressed homeowners in cities around the country, including in the Washington area.

The banking giant said it intends to triple the number of its locations, bringing the total to 40 in 22 states by early summer.

“Although we see signs of improvement, including slowing mortgage delinquencies, many homeowners continue to struggle to make their payments as a result of hardships in today’s economic environment,” Rebecca Mairone, Bank of America’s national mortgage outreach executive, said in a statement. “We have made a commitment to double our outreach staff this year, provide our customers with more ways to contact us and in locations that are as convenient and comfortable for them as possible.”

Bank of America and other major mortgage servicers have faced intense scrutiny since revelations last fall about widespread problems in the nation’s foreclosure system — from flawed and fraudulent court filings to questions about who legitimately owns mortgages that have been sold and resold over the years.

Last month, a collection of financial firms, including Bank of America, entered an agreement with three federal banking agencies aimed at stemming the shoddy foreclosure practices. The settlement did not impose financial penalties on the companies or compel them to reduce mortgage debt for troubled borrowers.

It did require that they streamline and simplify their processes, such as providing struggling homeowners with a single point of contact and refraining from foreclosing on borrowers at the same time that they are negotiating a loan modification.

State attorneys general, the Justice Department and several federal agencies are trying to negotiate a separate and potentially more stringent settlement with the banks. Sources have said it might force the companies to pay at least $20 billion in fines that could be used to slash the mortgage debt of borrowers who owe more than their houses are worth.

Some advocacy groups looked skeptically on the move by Bank of America. Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, said he hopes the bank will make substantive changes but called the announcement “window dressing.”

“The problems are far deeper than them opening a few more service centers,” Rheingold said. “The way they handle mortgage servicing and people’s requests for loan modifications is fundamentally broken. This doesn’t change that fact.”

Many of the new centers that Bank of American plans to open will be in areas hit hard by the housing bust, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Detroit, Newark, Philadelphia, Miami and Atlanta. The company said it also would open a Baltimore-Washington location, in addition to a center that opened this year in Alexandria.

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