Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NYT: Owners Seek to Sell at a Loss, But Bankers Push Foreclosure

By MICHAEL POWELL

PHOENIX — Bank of America and GMAC are firing up their formidable foreclosure machines again today, after a brief pause.

But hard-pressed homeowners like Lydia Sweetland are asking why lenders often balk at a less disruptive solution: short sales, which allow owners to sell deeply devalued homes for less than what remains on their mortgage.

Ms. Sweetland, 47, tried such a sale this summer out of desperation. She had lost her high-paying job and drained her once-flush retirement savings, and her bank, GMAC, wouldn’t modify her mortgage. After seven months of being unable to pay her mortgage, she decided that a short sale would give her more time to move out of her Phoenix home and damage her credit rating less than a foreclosure.

She owes $206,000 and found a buyer who would pay $200,000. Last Friday, GMAC rejected that offer and said it would foreclose in seven days, even though, according to Ms. Sweetland’s broker, the bank estimates it will make $19,000 less on a foreclosure than on a short sale.

“I guess I could salute and say, ‘O.K., I’m walking, here’s the keys,’ ” says Ms. Sweetland, as she sits in a plastic Adirondack chair on her patio. “But I need a little time, and I don’t want to just leave the house vacant. I loved this neighborhood.”

GMAC declined to be interviewed about Ms. Sweetland’s case.

The halt in most foreclosures the last few weeks gave a hint of hope to homeowners like Ms. Sweetland, who found breathing room to pursue alternatives. Consumer advocates took the view that this might pressure banks to offer mortgage modifications on better terms and perhaps drive interest in short sales, which are rising sharply in many corners of the nation.

But some major lenders took a quick inventory of their foreclosure practices and insisted their processes were sound. They now seem intent on resuming foreclosures. And that could have a profound effect on many homeowners.

In Arizona, thousands of homeowners have turned to short sales to avoid foreclosures, and many end up running a daunting procedural gantlet. Several of the largest lenders have set up complicated and balky application systems.

Concerns about fraud are one of the reasons lenders are so careful about short sales. Sometimes well-off homeowners want to portray their finances as dire and cut their losses on a property. In other instances, distressed homeowners try to make a short sale to a relative, who would then sell it back to them (a practice that is illegal). A recent industry report estimates that short sale fraud occurs in at least 2 percent of sales and costs banks about $300 million annually.

Short sales are also hindered when homeowners fail to forward the proper papers, have tax liens or cannot find a buyer.

Because of such concerns, homeowners often are instructed that they must be delinquent and they must apply for a modification first, even if chances of approval are slim. The aversion to short sales also leads banks to take many months to process applications, and some lenders set unrealistically high sales prices — known as broker price opinions — and hire workers who say they are poorly trained.

As a result, quite a few homeowners seeking short sales — banks will not provide precise numbers — topple into foreclosure, sometimes, critics say, for reasons that are hard to understand. Ms. Sweetland and her broker say they are confounded by her foreclosure, because in Arizona’s depressed real estate market, foreclosed homes often sit vacant for many months before banks are able to resell them.

“Banks are historically reluctant to do short sales, fearing that somehow the homeowner is getting an advantage on them,” said Diane E. Thompson, of counsel to the National Consumer Law Center. “There’s this irrational belief that if you foreclose and hold on to the property for six months, somehow prices will rebound.”

Homeowners, advocates and realty agents offer particularly pointed criticism of Bank of America, the nation’s largest servicer of mortgages, and a recipient of billions of dollars in federal bailout aid. Its holdings account for 31 percent of the pending foreclosures in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and Scottsdale, according to an analysis for The Arizona Republic.

The bank instructs real estate agents to use its computer program to evaluate short sales. But in three cases observed by The New York Times in collaboration with two real estate agents, the bank’s system repeatedly asked for and lost the same information and generated inaccurate responses.

In half a dozen more cases examined by The New York Times, Bank of America rejected short sale offers, foreclosed and auctioned off houses at lower prices.

“When I hear that a client’s mortgage is held by Bank of America, I just sigh. Our chances of getting an approval for them just went from 90 percent to 50-50,” said Benjamin Toma, who has a family-run real estate agency in Phoenix.

Bank of America officials also declined interview requests. A Bank of America spokeswoman said in an e-mail that the bank had processed 61,000 short sales nationwide this year; she declined to provide numbers for Arizona or to discuss criticisms of the company’s processing.

Fannie Mae, the mortgage finance company with federal backing, gives cash incentives to encourage servicers, who are affiliated with banks and who oversee great bundles of delinquent mortgages, to approve short sales.

But less obvious financial incentives can push toward a foreclosure rather than a short sale. Servicers can reap high fees from foreclosures. And lenders can try to collect on private mortgage insurance.

Some advocates and real estate agents also point to an April 2009 regulatory change in an obscure federal accounting law. The change, in effect, allowed banks to foreclose on a home without having to write down a loss until that home was sold. By contrast, if a bank agrees to a short sale, it must mark the loss immediately.

Short sales, to be sure, are no free ride for homeowners. They take a hit to their credit ratings, although for three to five years rather than seven after a foreclosure. An owner seeking a short sale must satisfy a laundry list of conditions, including making a detailed disclosure of income, tax and credit liens. And owners must prove that they have no connection to the buyer.

Still, bank decision-making, at least from a homeowner’s perspective, often appears arbitrary. That is certainly the view of Nicholas Yannuzzi, who after 30 years in Arizona still talks with a Philadelphia rasp. Mr. Yannuzzi has owned five houses over time, without any financial problems. When his wife was diagnosed with bone cancer, he put 20 percent down and bought a ranch house in North Scottsdale so that she would not have to climb stairs.

In the last few years, his wife died, he lost his job and he used his retirement fund to pay his mortgage for five months. His bank, Wells Fargo, denied his mortgage modification request and then his request for a short sale.

The bank officer told him that Fannie Mae, which held the mortgage, would not take a discount. At the end of last week, he was waiting to be locked out of his home.

“I’m a proud man. I’ve worked since I was 20 years old,” he said. “But I’ve run out of my 79 weeks of unemployment, so that’s it.”

He shrugged. “I try to keep in the frame of mind that a lot of people have it worse than me.”

Back in Phoenix, Ms. Sweetland’s real estate agent, Sherry Rampy, appeared to receive good news last week. GMAC re-examined her client’s application and suggested it might be approved.

But the bank attached a condition: Ms. Sweetland must come up with $2,000 in closing costs or pay $100 a month for 50 months to the bank. Ms. Sweetland, however, is flat broke.

A late afternoon desert sun angles across her Pasadena neighborhood.

“After this, I’ll never buy again,” Ms. Sweetland says. “This is not the American dream. This is not my American dream.”

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

New York Times: F.T.C. Accuses American Tax Relief of Fraud

By EDWARD WYATT

WASHINGTON — Who wouldn’t like to settle with the Internal Revenue Service for pennies on the dollar?

In recent years, some 20,000 people have turned to American Tax Relief of Beverly Hills, Calif., to do just that after seeing the company’s advertisements on television, the Internet or in print, where actors portraying clients say the company reduced their back taxes to say, $2,000 from $24,000 or $40,000 from $200,000.

But the Federal Trade Commission said Wednesday that despite collecting $60 million to $100 million in upfront fees from often-desperate clients in recent years, American Tax Relief rarely, if ever, delivered on its promises.

It did, however, according to the F.T.C., deliver $30 million in customers’ funds to the accounts of the company’s owners or their relatives — money that was spent on a $3.4 million house in Beverly Hills; a garage full of cars, including a Ferrari, a Rolls Royce, a Bentley, two Porsches and two Mercedes-Benzes; and other luxuries.

At the F.T.C.’s request, a federal district court judge in Chicago froze the assets of American Tax Relief and its owners on Sept. 24 and appointed a receiver to manage the company. The judge also approved a temporary restraining order prohibiting the company and its owners — Alexander Seung Hahn, who is on probation for an earlier marketing fraud case, and his wife, Joo Hyun Park, from making deceptive claims. The F.T.C. does not have criminal jurisdiction or the ability to assess fines.

“Everyone has seen these commercials and wondered, ‘Can I really get away with paying the I.R.S. only a fraction of what I owe?,’ ” C. Steven Baker, the director of the F.T.C.’s Midwest Regional office, said in an interview. “The short answer is no.”

Of the 20,000 clients that the F.T.C. says it believes that American Tax Relief signed up, “we have not been able to find a single one” that the company helped to reduce a tax burden, said David Vladek, the chief of the commission’s division of consumer protection.

Mr. Hahn and Ms. Park could not be reached for comment. Charles L. Kreindler, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents the company, said in a statement that it intended to fight the F.T.C. action, which “focused on a small handful of complaints and ignored the thousands of consumers who have been helped.”

In the last five months, Mr. Kreindler said, more than 60 tax abatement offers from American Tax Relief had been accepted by tax authorities, saving clients more than $2 million and reducing their taxes by 90 percent. “During that same time period, American Tax Relief has successfully eliminated debilitating penalties for dozens of other taxpayers and placed them on payment plans that they can live with,” he added.

Mr. Hahn has previously been in trouble with the law for marketing scams. In October 2006, he was sentenced to five years’ probation for a conviction of mail fraud related to a telemarketing scheme at a company he ran in Garden Grove, Calif.

According to an affidavit filed in United States District Court in Santa Ana, Calif., Mr. Hahn started American Tax Relief in 1999 after paying a secretary at the tax-relief firm where he worked to steal a copy of its client list.

From 2002 through 2008, 410 different consumers filed 497 complaints against American Tax Relief with the Better Business bureau, the F.T.C., or various law enforcement agencies. The complaints accused the company of failing to negotiate settlements with the I.R.S., resulting in penalties and additional interest charges for the customers, or making unauthorized charges to credit cards or withdrawals from bank accounts.

When customers complained to American Tax Relief that a debt was not settled, the company often blamed the clients for providing incorrect paperwork, missing deadlines or failing to pay all of the required fees, according to court papers.

Some of the $30 million that the F.T.C. says went to pay the personal expenses of Mr. Hahn and his wife were laundered through the accounts of his wife’s parents, Young Soon Park and Il Kon Park, according to the agency.

Mr. Baker of the F.T.C.’s Chicago office said that companies like American Tax Relief had created a widespread misimpression that anyone with an outstanding tax debt could settle with the I.R.S. for less than they owed.

While the I.R.S. does have programs of the type pitched by American Tax Relief — an “offer in compromise” settlement and a “penalty abatement” — the government is likely to accept less than it is owed only if the taxpayer makes an offer that is equal to or greater than the taxpayer’s ability to pay, including the value of all of the taxpayer’s property, cars, bank accounts and other assets.

An I.R.S. Web site specifically cautions: “Taxpayers should beware of promoters’ claims that tax debts can be settled through the offer in compromise program for ‘pennies on the dollar.’ ”

Most of the clients who received any service from American Tax Relief were eligible for no I.R.S. program other than an installment agreement, which usually requires the full amount of the debt to be paid over time. Installment agreements are easily arranged by individual taxpayers and rarely require expert assistance.

Mr. Vladek said that while the F.T.C. and other agencies determined that American Tax Relief took in about $60 million between January 2004 and October 2008, its continued business since then has probably pushed the total to more than $100 million.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 04, 2010

New York Times: Flawed Paperwork Aggravates a Foreclosure Crisis

By GRETCHEN MORGENSON

As some of the nation’s largest lenders have conceded that their foreclosure procedures might have been improperly handled, lawsuits have revealed myriad missteps in crucial documents.

The flawed practices that GMAC Mortgage, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America have recently begun investigating are so prevalent, lawyers and legal experts say, that additional lenders and loan servicers are likely to halt foreclosure proceedings and may have to reconsider past evictions.

Problems emerging in courts across the nation are varied but all involve documents that must be submitted before foreclosures can proceed legally. Homeowners, lawyers and analysts have been citing such problems for the last few years, but it appears to have reached such intensity recently that banks are beginning to re-examine whether all of the foreclosure papers were prepared properly.

In some cases, documents have been signed by employees who say they have not verified crucial information like amounts owed by borrowers. Other problems involve questionable legal notarization of documents, in which, for example, the notarizations predate the actual preparation of documents — suggesting that signatures were never actually reviewed by a notary.

Other problems occurred when notarizations took place so far from where the documents were signed that it was highly unlikely that the notaries witnessed the signings, as the law requires.

On still other important documents, a single official’s name is signed in such radically different ways that some appear to be forgeries. Additional problems have emerged when multiple banks have all argued that they have the right to foreclose on the same property, a result of a murky trail of documentation and ownership.

There is no doubt that the enormous increase in foreclosures in recent years has strained the resources of lenders and their legal representatives, creating challenges that any institution might find overwhelming. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, the percentage of loans that were delinquent by 90 days or more stood at 9.5 percent in the first quarter of 2010, up from 4 percent in the same period of 2008.

But analysts say that the wave of defaults still does not excuse lenders’ failures to meet their legal obligations before trying to remove defaulting borrowers from their homes.

“It reflects the hubris that as long as the money was going through the pipeline, these companies didn’t really have to make sure the documents were in order,” said Kathleen C. Engel, dean for intellectual life at Suffolk University Law School and an expert in mortgage law. “Suddenly they have a lot at stake, and playing fast and loose is going to be more costly than it was in the past.”

Attorneys general in at least six states, including Massachusetts, Iowa, Florida and Illinois, are investigating improper foreclosure practices. Last week, Jennifer Brunner, the secretary of state of Ohio, referred examples of what her office considers possible notary abuse by Chase Home Mortgage to federal prosecutors for investigation.

The implications are not yet clear for borrowers who have been evicted from their homes as a result of improper filings. But legal experts say that courts may impose sanctions on lenders or their representatives or may force banks to pay borrowers’ legal costs in these cases.

Judges may dismiss the foreclosures altogether, barring lenders from refiling and awarding the home to the borrower. That would create a loss for the lender or investor holding the note underlying the property. Almost certainly, lawyers say, lawsuits on behalf of borrowers will multiply.

In Florida, problems with foreclosure cases are especially acute. A recent sample of foreclosure cases in the 12th Judicial Circuit of Florida showed that 20 percent of those set for summary judgment involved deficient documents, according to chief judge Lee E. Haworth.

“We have sent repeated notices to law firms saying, ‘You are not following the rules, and if you don’t clean up your act, we are going to impose sanctions on you,’ ” Mr. Haworth said in an interview. “They say, ‘We’ll fix it, we’ll fix it, we’ll fix it.’ But they don’t.”

As a result, Mr. Haworth said, on Sept. 17, Harry Rapkin, a judge overseeing foreclosures in the district, dismissed 61 foreclosure cases. The plaintiffs can refile but they need to pay new filing fees, Mr. Haworth said.

The byzantine mortgage securitization process that helped inflate the housing bubble allowed home loans to change hands so many times before they were eventually pooled and sold to investors that it is now extremely difficult to track exactly which lenders have claims to a home.

Many lenders or loan servicers that begin the foreclosure process after a borrower defaults do not produce documentation proving that they have the legal right to foreclosure, known as standing.

As a substitute, the banks usually present affidavits attesting to ownership of the note signed by an employee of a legal services firm acting as an agent for the lender or loan servicer. Such affidavits allow foreclosures to proceed, but because they are often dubiously prepared, many questions have arisen about their validity.

Although lawyers for troubled borrowers have contended for years that banks in many cases have not properly documented their rights to foreclose, the issue erupted in mid-September when GMAC said it was halting foreclosure proceedings in 23 states because of problems with its legal practices. The move by GMAC followed testimony by an employee who signed affidavits for the lender; he said that he executed 400 of them each day without reading them or verifying that the information in them was correct.

JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America followed with similar announcements.

But these three large lenders are not the only companies employing people who have failed to verify crucial aspects of a foreclosure case, court documents show.

Last May, Herman John Kennerty, a loan administration manager in the default document group of Wells Fargo Mortgage, testified to lawyers representing a troubled borrower that he typically signed 50 to 150 foreclosure documents a day. In that case, in King County Superior Court in Seattle, he also stated that he did not independently verify the information to which he was attesting.

Wells Fargo did not respond to requests for comment.

In other cases, judges are finding that banks’ claims of standing in a foreclosure case can conflict with other evidence.

Last Thursday, Paul F. Isaacs, a judge in Bourbon County Circuit Court in Kentucky, reversed a ruling he had made in August giving Bank of New York Mellon the right to foreclose on a couple’s home. According to court filings, Mr. Isaacs had relied on the bank’s documentation that it said showed it held the note underlying the property in a trust. But after the borrowers supplied evidence indicating that the note may in fact reside in a different trust, the judge reversed himself. The court will revisit the matter soon.

Bank of New York said it was reviewing the ruling and could not comment.

Another problematic case involves a foreclosure action taken by Deutsche Bank against a borrower in the Bronx in New York. The bank says it has the right to foreclose because the mortgage was assigned to it on Oct. 15, 2009.

But according to court filings made by David B. Shaev, a lawyer at Shaev & Fleischman who represents the borrower, the assignment to Deutsche Bank is riddled with problems. First, the company that Deutsche said had assigned it the mortgage, the Sand Canyon Corporation, no longer had any rights to the underlying property when the transfer was supposed to have occurred.

Additional questions have arisen over the signature verifying an assignment of the mortgage. Court documents show that Tywanna Thomas, assistant vice president of American Home Mortgage Servicing, assigned the mortgage from Sand Canyon to Deutsche Bank in October 2009. On assignments of mortgages in other cases, Ms. Thomas’s signatures differ so wildly that it appears that three people signed the documents using Ms. Thomas’s name.

Given the differences in the signatures, Mr. Shaev filed court papers last July contending that the assignment is a sham, “prepared to create an appearance of a creditor as a real party in interest/standing, when in fact it is likely that the chain of title required in these matters was not performed, lost or both.”

Mr. Shaev also asked the judge overseeing the case, Shelley C. Chapman, to order Ms. Thomas to appear to answer questions the lawyer has raised.

John Gallagher, a spokesman for Deutsche Bank, which is trustee for the securitization that holds the note in this case, said companies servicing mortgage loans engaged the law firms that oversee foreclosure proceedings. “Loan servicers are obligated to adhere to all legal requirements,” he said, “and Deutsche Bank, as trustee, has consistently informed servicers that they are required to execute these actions in a proper and timely manner.”

Reached by phone on Saturday, Ms. Thomas declined to comment.

The United States Trustee, a unit of the Justice Department, is also weighing in on dubious court documents filed by lenders. Last January, it supported a request by Silvia Nuer, a borrower in foreclosure in the Bronx, for sanctions against JPMorgan Chase.

In testimony, a lawyer for Chase conceded that a law firm that had previously represented the bank, the Steven J. Baum firm of Buffalo, had filed inaccurate documents as it sought to take over the property from Ms. Nuer.

The Chase lawyer told a judge last January that his predecessors had combed through the chain of title on the property and could not find a proper assignment. The firm found “something didn’t happen that needed to be fixed,” he explained, and then, according to court documents, it prepared inaccurate documents to fill in the gaps.

The Baum firm did not return calls to comment.

A lawyer for the United States Trustee said that the Nuer case “does not represent an isolated example of misconduct by Chase in the Southern District of New York.”

Chase declined to comment.

“The servicers have it in their control to get the right documents and do this properly, but it is so much cheaper to run it through a foreclosure mill,” said Linda M. Tirelli, a lawyer in White Plains who represents Ms. Nuer in the case against Chase. “This is not about getting a free house for my client. It’s about a level playing field. If I submitted false documents like this to the court, I’d have my license handed to me.”

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.