‘Flopping’ scam enables fraudulent flipping in housing market

Although reports of mortgage fraud nationally fell 41 percent in 2010 from 2009, the continuing downturn in the housing market has fostered new ways of perpetrating it, experts say.

Consider “flopping” — the intentional misrepresentation of housing value for purposes of illegal flipping.

Here’s how it works: A real-estate agent or broker identifies properties with severely depressed values. These could be properties with mortgages that exceed the present values or they could be short sales or foreclosures.

A property is valued using a “broker price opinion.” The broker’s “opinion” is a lowball price, because his intention is to profit from a quick resale for a higher price.

A lender, believing the broker’s assessment is legitimate and unaware of any scheming, agrees to the lower sales price.

The broker buys it at the greatly reduced price, arranges for a “straw buyer” to purchase it, then flips it for a higher price than negotiated with the lender. The broker pockets the profits.

The broker pays off any of the participants that enabled the scheme, and then moves to the next target property.

Misrepresentation

“This is a misrepresentation of value,” said Denise James, co-author of an annual report on the topic by the LexisNexis Mortgage Asset Research Institute, during a recent teleconference.

She said such schemes could add to problems faced by regions with an abundance of distressed housing, since “lenders will grow concerned with false depreciation of values,” thus making the buying and selling of homes even more difficult in depressed housing markets.

“Flopping increases as desperation to get rid of rising inventory grows,” she said.

While reports of fraud by 600 lenders and other real-estate businesses to the LexisNexis mortgage institute declined year over year, “the decrease does not necessarily correlate to actual occurrences of (fraud), which are rising according to several industry sources,” James said.

Rising numbers

Suspected mortgage fraud submitted to the Federal Financial Crime Reporting Network rose 5 percent from 2009 to 2010, for example.

The list of crimes included short sales, bankruptcy abuse, debt-elimination scams, income and employment misrepresentation, Social Security number theft and loan-modification fraud.

Mortgage fraud has become more complex and is more difficult to verify, James said, because many lenders are trying to implement new procedures at the same time they are trying to recover huge financial losses.

Florida leads the list of states with high levels of fraud, with the institute’s index showing more than three times as many reports of fraud than legitimate mortgage originations.

One of the fastest-growing ways homeowners are being bilked is by people posing as the new servicers of their mortgages, she said.

“They (the homeowners) get letters saying, ‘I’m your new servicer. Send your payments to me,’ ” James said. “Homeowners who are not aware that there is a formal procedure involved in changing servicers” fall victim to this scam.

Source: By Alan Heavens, The Philadelphia Inquirer (6/10/2011)

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Foreclosures for sale: Big supply, low prices

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — There’s a three-year inventory of homes in foreclosure for sale, and that’s devastating home prices.

Las Vegas has so many foreclosures that 53% of all the homes sold in Nevada are in some stage of foreclosure, according to a report from RealtyTrac, the online marketer of foreclosed properties.

Foreclosures represent 45% of sales in California and Arizona, and 28% of all existing home sales during the first three months of 2011.

“This is very bad for the economy,” said Rick Sharga, a spokesman for RealtyTrac.

What’s more, the homes are selling at steep discounts, especially so-called REOs, bank-owned homes that have been taken in foreclosure procedures.

The average REO cost on average about 35% less than comparable properties, according to RealtyTrac.

But in some areas, the discounts were ever greater: In New York State, the discount for REOs was 53% during the first quarter. And it was nearly 50% in Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

10 dirt cheap housingmarkets

Also weighing on market prices are “short sales,” homes where the selling price is less than what is owed by the borrowers. These sales sold at an average 9% discount.

Including both REOs and short sales, Ohio had the biggest discount of any state, at 41%.

There were 158,000 deals involving distressed properties nationwide during the first quarter, less than half the nearly 350,000 during the same period two years earlier.

With the slowed sales pace, it will take three years to burn through the inventory of 1.9 million distressed properties, according to Sharga.

“Even if you look at REOs alone, it will take 24 months to clear them and that’s without any new foreclosures at all coming into the system,” said Sharga.

Mortgages, foreclosures top agenda at BofA meeting

Foreclosures and home-mortgage modifications took center stage at Bank of America annual meeting last week.

Outside the headquarters of the nation’s largest bank, protesters held signs and gave testimonials about their own foreclosure experiences.

At the meeting, which was held inside the bank’s new 32-story building adjacent to its headquarters, shareholders confronted CEO Brian Moynihan about mortgage woes in their communities.

The Rev. Clyde Ellis, a pastor from Virginia, said Bank of America should take responsibility for its role in the foreclosure crisis.

“Come to Prince William County and I will show you disaster,” Ellis said.

Losses and litigation related to foreclosures and poorly written mortgages have haunted Bank of America for several quarters. In its latest quarter, the bank’s income dropped 39 percent on higher costs related to mortgages and legal expenses.

At the end of the first quarter, the bank had $2 billion of foreclosed properties on its book, and its customers were late by 90 days or more on $24 billion of its total loans, which included commercial and residential properties.

Moynihan tried to separate the rest of the bank’s business from its mortgage woes. He described the company as being made up of two stories, with the mortgage business on one side and all its other business units on the other.

“The power of the franchise is held back by the mortgage challenges we face,” he said.

The bank’s stock is one of the worst performers of the S&P 500 index this year. Recently, the stock slid after the Federal Reserve rejected the bank’s capital plan and its request for a dividend increase.

BofA was the only bank among the country’s four largest that didn’t pass a stress test from the Fed. The central bank examined the 19 largest banks in the country to see if they were strong enough to withstand another economic downturn. BofA will submit a revised plan later this year.

Moynihan said the bank will pay dividends once it resolves more of its mortgage issues and submits a plan that is acceptable to regulators.

Some shareholders want the bank to scrutinize itself more closely. Michael Garland, who was representing several large public pension funds at the meeting, said he had written to BofA’s audit committee asking that it conduct an independent review of mortgages and foreclosures to show they conform with the laws.

Garland said that audit committees of other banks responded soon after he sent them a similar letter in January.

He said was disappointed that there had been no response from BofA’s audit committee until just five days before the annual meeting.

The plan didn’t get enough votes to pass on Wednesday.

“If this is your response to shareholders with a $1.3 billion stake in the company, I can only imagine how you treat your residential-mortgage customers,” said Garland, who was also representing the New York City Comptroller’s Office, which oversees the public pension funds of New York.

Source: By Pallavi Gogoi, Associated Press

Gov’t Looks to Reduce Real Estate Inventory

The Obama administration is looking to get rid of 14,000 surplus properties that the federal government owns around the country and is costing taxpayers money to maintain.

The surplus properties include everything from unused roads and empty lots to warehouses and office buildings.

“The government can no longer foot the bill for vacant buildings,” says Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who also has authored a bill to quickly dispose of the government’s surplus property, but without using a special commission as the Obama administration has proposed.

The federal government spent about $134 million to maintain surplus buildings in 2009. The Obama administration says that improving the government’s management of surplus properties stands to save taxpayers $15 billion over several years.

The Obama administration is proposing a special commission be used to handle the surplus property in order to try to sidestep problems that have hindered the sale of these properties in the past. The presidentially-appointed, seven-member Civilian Property Realignment Board would evaluate surplus federal properties and make recommendations to “significantly reduce” the government’s real estate inventory, which ultimately would be voted upon by Congress.

The government believes there are some 12,000 surplus federal properties within the U.S. and about 2,000 overseas. The commission would not deal with military, national security sites, national parks, or wildlife refuges.

Source: “Obama Seeks Special Panel to Unload Federal Real Estate,” McClatchy Newspapers (May 4, 2011)

Lawsuit reveals how a middleman is blocking mortgage modifications for homeowners

Pamela Jeter, of Atlanta, Ga., has been trying to get a mortgage modification for more than two years. She seems like an ideal candidate. She has shown she can stay current with a reduction in her monthly mortgage payments. Everybody would seem to win. Even the investors who ultimately own her loan think she should be able to get one. So, why is Jeter facing foreclosure?

A bank that she didn’t even know is involved with her loan has thrown up a roadblock to modifications. At least tens of thousands of other homeowners have shared a similar plight. Jeter’s case is a window into a broken system where even though the actual investors, when asked, say they want to allow modifications, the bank that acts as their representative has refused to allow them.

Two big banks act as middlemen between the homeowners like Jeter who make payments and the mortgage-backed securities investors who ultimately receive them. The banks’ jobs were supposed to be relatively hands-off, devoted more than anything to processing homeowner payments. When the housing bubble burst, they faced new demands.

One of those middleman roles is well-known to homeowners: the mortgage servicer, responsible for collecting homeowner payments and evaluating requests for a modification.

But it’s another middleman that’s proved the real barrier for Jeter: the trustee, who is supposed to be the investors’ representative, making sure the servicer is maximizing investors’ returns and distributing checks to them. HSBC is the trustee for the pool of loans of which Jeter’s is a part — and it’s refused to approve any modifications for loans like hers, saying the contracts around the mortgages simply don’t allow it.

The good news for Jeter is that, in what seems an unprecedented step, her servicer OneWest has taken HSBC to court to allow modifications. It filed suit in June of last year.

But in a sign of just how convoluted the mortgage world has become, OneWest is also pushing to foreclose on her. A recent sale date was avoided only after her lawyer threatened to sue. (One day after ProPublica published this story in March, OneWest postponed foreclosure, saying that it wouldn’t attempt to seize Jeter’s home again for at least two months.)

Bundled loan syndrome

Jeter’s loan was typical of the boom years. To help pay for improvements on her home in 2007, she’d refinanced into an interest-only adjustable-rate loan. That loan was bundled with thousands of others by a Wall Street bank and sold off to investors, such as pension funds, hedge funds and banks.

That’s where the trouble started. In Jeter’s loan pool and nine others, the contracts laying out the servicers’ responsibilities and powers contradict each other. OneWest’s lawsuit seeks to sort out that contradiction.

One document, a private contract between the servicer and the Wall Street bank that bundled the loans, explicitly forbids servicers from modifying loans in the pools in a way that would reduce homeowner payments. But other contracts — that investors could see — explicitly allow such modifications.

It’s become a familiar problem during the foreclosure crisis, dealing with the aftermath of the banks’ corner-cutting and sloppy paperwork of the housing boom.

No one appears to have tried to sort out this mess until 2009, when OneWest requested that HSBC, the trustee, allow modifications. The administration had just launched the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which pays servicers and investors subsidies to encourage affordable modifications. Under the program, modifications occur only when they will likely bring a better return to investors than foreclosure.

But HSBC refused to authorize any modifications, saying the contracts prohibit them. It’s obligated to act in investors’ interest, and it feared getting sued by those who didn’t want to cut homeowners’ payments. The dispute dragged on for months. Ultimately, HSBC offered to allow modifications only if OneWest accepted the risk of getting sued by investors, but OneWest wouldn’t.

OneWest was in an increasingly difficult situation, it says in its suit. It faced potential suits from investors if it modified loans, and if it didn’t, homeowners in the pool might sue.

In late June 2010, with HSBC still not budging, OneWest filed suit, asking a federal judge to decide whether modifications should or should not be allowed.

Eligible but not allowed

The case suggests that when investors themselves are asked, they will approve modifications. HSBC polled the investors in the 10 pools after the suit was filed. A large majority favored allowing modifications. Based on those results, HSBC said in a court filing in January that it did not oppose OneWest’s request for a judge to intervene and that if the judge declared modifications were allowed, that would be fine with them.

In the meantime, 3,000 homeowners like Jeter whose mortgages are caught up in the dispute have been unable to get any reduction in payments. When OneWest filed its suit, it said at least 800 of the loans seemed eligible for an affordable government-sponsored modification but couldn’t actually be modified because of HSBC’s stance. Those homeowners “are facing the possibility of losing their homes through potentially avoidable foreclosures every day,” it said.

It’s not clear how many of those homeowners have since been foreclosed on. OneWest said in a statement that it had no choice in pursuing foreclosure: It’s “contractually obligated to continue servicing loans in accordance with the terms of the underlying securitization documents.”

Foreclosure crisis

The suit is remarkable not only because it seems unique — close observers said they hadn’t seen another example of a servicer going to court against a trustee — but also because it lays bare a relationship that is usually a mystery to homeowners and investors in securitized mortgages.

It’s often hard for homeowners to tell if a servicer is correctly citing an investor restriction when denying a modification. Servicers have cited investor restrictions when denying modifications for at least 30,000 homeowners, about 2 percent of the 1.9 million total homeowners who’ve been denied, according to a ProPublica analysis of Treasury Department data. A Treasury spokeswoman said auditors examining such denials had found they were almost always legitimate. That’s not an experience shared by homeowner advocates.

In a number of cases, said Jeff Gentes, an attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, servicer employees have told his clients that there was an investor restriction, when a little bit of digging showed that’s not true. We reported on this problem last year.

Changes not pursued

In the cases when there actually is a restriction in the documents, the servicer is supposed to at least try to get permission. The HAMP rules require the servicer to send a letter to the trustee requesting that modifications be allowed.

In cases where there’s a clear contractual bar to modifications, the servicer and trustee could take the initiative to change the contracts by having the investors vote on it or, if voting isn’t required, amend the contract themselves.

But in general, said Gentes, the housing attorney, servicers are slow to investigate and eliminate bars to modification. Servicers are paid a low, flat rate per loan and are motivated to keep costs down. “The costs of removing an investor restriction are often borne by the servicers, and so extensive amendment rules often mean that servicers won’t pursue it.”

Trustees, who get paid even lower fees, are no different, said Bill Frey of Greenwich Financial Services, which specializes in mortgage-backed securities. “They’re very, very prone to inaction.”

Both, as middlemen, don’t bear the loss when a home is foreclosed on.

Source: By Paul Kiel, ProPublica.com (April 17, 2011)

Foreclosure Activity Drops to 3-Year Lows

New data released from RealtyTrac on Thursday show the foreclosure crisis is easing: Foreclosure notices filed during the first three months of 2011 dropped 27 percent compared with the first quarter of 2010. More than 681,000 homes received a foreclosure filing during the first quarter of 2011.

And while 215,046 borrowers lost their homes, that marks a 17 percent decrease year-over-year.

However, while the improvement may be encouraging, experts warn that the decrease in foreclosure activity is likely temporary.

“The nation’s housing market continued to languish in the first quarter, even as foreclosure activity fell to a three-year low,” says James Saccacio, RealtyTrac’s CEO. “Weak demand, declining home prices, and the lack of credit availability are weighing heavily on the market, which is still facing the dual threat of a looming shadow inventory of distressed properties and the probability that foreclosure activity will begin to increase again as lenders and servicers gradually work their way through the backlog of thousands of foreclosures that have been delayed due to improperly processed paperwork.”

Following this fall’s “robo-signing” scandal, in which banks were accused of processing foreclosures without proper reviews, banks have slowed their pace of foreclosures until they clean up their paperwork procedures, experts say. Otherwise, the number of foreclosures would be much higher for the quarter, says RealtyTrac spokesman Rick Sharga.

Meanwhile, Nevada continues to post the highest rate of foreclosure activity, followed by Arizona and California. Nevada alone had 32,000 properties, or one in every 35, receiving a foreclosure filing.

Source: “Foreclosures Off 30% This Year,” CNNMoney.com (April 14, 2011) and “Processing Delays Cut Foreclosure Activity by 27% in 1Q 2011: RealtyTrac,” HousingWire (April 14, 2011)

Homeowners facing foreclosure about to win right to mediation

More homeowners in Washington state could get help avoiding unnecessary foreclosures under a bill awaiting Gov. Chris Gregoire’s signature.

The bill, the “Foreclosure Fairness Act,” would give distressed homeowners working with housing counselors or attorneys the right to in-person mediation with the bank or company servicing their mortgage. Consumer advocates expect Gregoire to sign the bill Thursday.

Washington, among the 27 states where court approval of foreclosures isn’t required, would become only the third state — after Nevada and Maryland — to adopt a foreclosure-mediation program in which a homeowner can seek to modify terms of their loan.

“There’s no silver bullet, but this will at least be a competent response to the irresponsibility of the financial industry,” said Bruce Neas, a Columbia Legal Services attorney who helped negotiate the bill.

State regulators, who receive hundreds of complaints each year against national mortgage servicers, have been stymied by federal rules that limit their power to intervene.

The only recourse for homeowners has been going to court, where they’re usually outmatched by servicers.

Also Wednesday, federal regulators announced they had ordered eight national banks — Bank of America, Citibank, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, MetLife Bank, PNC, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo — to hire an outside firm to review all foreclosure actions from 2009 to 2010 and submit a plan to remedy “all financial injury to borrowers caused by any errors, misrepresentations, or other deficiencies” identified by outside consultants.

The move by state lawmakers to require mediation comes as the foreclosure crisis in Washington continues. In the first three months of the year, more than 5,600 homes were seized and more than 7,000 were headed to foreclosure auction, according to RealtyTrac.

The bill before Gregoire also would provide an estimated $7.5 million for foreclosure-prevention efforts and more than double the number of housing counselors. Washington has just over 40.

“The real hope is that by adding the counselors, the banks and families would reach some kind of agreement before going to mediation,” said Kim Herman, executive director of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission.

Under the proposed law, once a homeowner becomes delinquent, the servicer must send a letter asking the owner to contact the server and urging the person to call a housing counselor or attorney for help.

Homeowners who respond to the letter would be given 60 more days before the servicer could file a notice of default.

If the counselor or attorney couldn’t resolve the issue with the servicer, they could refer the homeowner to a mediator through the state Department of Commerce.

The Commerce Department selects the mediator, who must hold a session within 45 days. The homeowner and servicer share in the cost of the mediator’s fee, which can be up to $400.

If the mediator finds the servicer didn’t participate in good faith, a homeowner can use that to ask a court to stop the foreclosure. The state Attorney General’s Office also could pursue penalties against servicers.

When lawmakers opened negotiations on the bill, consumer advocates were surprised by the bankers’ first move.

Without prompting, the Washington Bankers Association offered to pay a $250 fee for every default notice filed, with the stipulation that 80 percent of the money pay for housing counselors.

“It did surprise people,” Herman said.

The association, which represents national and community banks, suggested the fee because it wants more delinquent homeowners to work with housing counselors, said James Pishue, the group’s president.

National studies show that homeowners who work with trained housing counselors have much higher success rates in reaching an agreement with their servicer.

“We thought that would prevent the need for mediation,” Pishue said. “Ultimately it results in fewer foreclosures.”

Marc Cote, a housing counselor who oversees the state’s foreclosure-prevention hotline, said he’s pleased with the measure.

“The main thing I’m hopeful for is that the mediation piece will inspire servicers to resolve the hundreds, in my experience, of [loan] workouts that are still not resolved after months and months.”

Source: Sanjay Bhatt, Seattle Times (April 13th, 2011)