January 29, 2010

Deficiency Judgments

Bloomberg – When John King stopped making payments on his home in Coral Gables, Florida, two years ago, he assumed the foreclosure ended his mortgage contract, he said. Last month, a Miami-Dade County court gave collectors permission to pursue him for $44,000 stemming from the default.

King is among a rising number of borrowers who are learning that they can be on the hook for years after losing their homes. Amid a crisis that stripped $6.4 trillion, or 28 percent, from the value of U.S. residential real estate since the 2006 peak, lenders are exercising their rights to pursue unpaid mortgage balances. To get their money, they can seize wages, tap bank accounts and put liens on other assets held by debtors.

“The big dogs get a bailout, and the little man gets no mercy,” said King, 39, referring to the U.S. government’s rescue of banks and other financial institutions.

While there are no statistics on the number of deficiency judgments approved by courts, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. tracks the amount banks collect after defaulted loans were written off.

These mortgage recoveries rose 48 percent to a record $1.01 billion in the first nine months of last year compared with the year-earlier period, according to the Washington-based regulator. Recoveries on defaulted home-equity loans almost doubled to $392 million, the FDIC data shows.

The figures don’t include money retrieved by trusts overseeing mortgage-backed securities, such as the one that holds the loan on King’s former home, or efforts by distressed- asset funds and companies that buy bad loans to profit from collection rights. Judgments such as the one levied against King usually tack on court fees, fines and interest.

‘Next Big Crisis’

Deficiency judgments were rare in the 15 years since the last real estate slump, said Ben Hillard, a former investment banker who now is a real estate and corporate attorney at Hillard & Rogers in Largo, Florida.

“The banks have been too underwater with foreclosures to spend much time on deficiency judgments, but that’s beginning to change,” Hillard said in an interview. “This is going to be the next big crisis.”

Almost 4.5 percent of mortgaged U.S. homes were in foreclosure during the third quarter, the highest rate in the 37 years of tracking the data, the Mortgage Bankers Association said Nov. 19. A record one in every 10 mortgages was at least one payment overdue in the same period, the Washington-based trade group reported.

The Obama administration is seeking to modify as many as 4 million loans by 2012 to prevent foreclosures through the Home Affordable Modification Program, which cuts monthly payments to about a third of borrowers’ income. By the end of December, the program was responsible for more than 850,000 modifications, the Treasury Department said in a Jan. 15 report.

20-Year Window

The federal government spent $230 billion in the year ended in September to support homeowners, according to the Congressional Budget Office in Washington. Those efforts didn’t help people who had already walked away from their houses.

In states such as Florida, courts give mortgage holders as long as five years to seek a deficiency judgment and, if granted, up to 20 years to collect. Usually, they have the option of renewing the judgment if it’s not paid off within 20 years.

About a third of U.S. states, including California and Arizona, prohibit collection efforts on primary residences after foreclosure. In some cases, homeowners waive that protection if they refinance. Most states allow collection on unpaid home equity loans.

Depression-Era Protections

The laws in states that protect some borrowers stem from the Great Depression in the 1930s, when a lack of bidders at foreclosure auctions caused deficiencies that, with added fees and interest, sometimes were bigger than the original loan amount, according to a 1934 Virginia Law Review article by Sol Phillips Perlman. Today, many courts measure the shortfall using a property’s market value at the time of foreclosure rather than auction results.

The likeliest candidates for deficiency judgments are so- called rational defaults, said Larry Tolchinsky, a real estate attorney in Hallandale Beach, Florida. In those cases, people who are current on their mortgages decide to walk away from a property because its value has sunk so far below their loan balance they have no hope of recouping the loss.

About 21 percent of American homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their properties are worth, according to Zillow.com, a Seattle-based real estate data firm.

“Walking away from a property comes with a cost, especially for people who otherwise have good credit,” Tolchinsky said in an interview. “The bank is going to pull your credit report, and if you’re current on your other bills they are going to come after you and potentially ruin you.”

Fine Print

It’s not just foreclosures that can trigger debt collections. Short sales also may lead to deficiency judgments years after former homeowners have moved on, according to Hillard, the attorney in Largo. In a short sale, lenders agree to let borrowers sell a home for less than the mortgage balance.

“Banks are being very careful to preserve their rights, either outright in the short sale agreement or by using vague language that leaves that door open,” Hillard said. About 90 percent of people who do a short sale think they are “off the hook.”

That was the case when two of his clients, Brigitte and John Howard, sold their home in New Port Richey, Florida, almost two years ago without using a lawyer to check the bank’s short- sale agreement.

$20,000 Shock

“We got a call out of the blue saying we owed $20,000,” said Brigitte Howard, 45. “It was a shock. There was no mention in the short-sale contract that the bank might come after us for the difference.”

The money King owes to the Soundview Home Loan asset-backed security that holds the mortgage on his former Coral Gables condominium consists of $38,000 for unpaid principal and almost $6,000 in legal fees and interest accrued prior to the ruling. According to the judgment, the security can charge 8 percent interest until he pays off the debt.

King, who said his default was caused by a reduction in his income, now rents near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he teaches ballroom dancing.

“I thought the foreclosure was the worst of a bad situation, but it’s not,” said King. “The people who got sucked into the real estate bubble are still paying for it, even after they’ve taken our homes.”

January 28, 2010

Craig Sues Debt Collectors

Filed under: Collections,FDCPA

Dallas Observer – Unlike his neighbors’ homes, Craig Cunningham’s house in Northeast Dallas looks abandoned. The grass is dried out. The concrete slab under the front door is lopsided and cracked. The green exterior has faded to a toxic-looking shade. Yellow Pages pile up near the front door, and the black mailbox is stuffed full. Maybe the home has been foreclosed on. That wouldn’t be a surprise in this economy.

But no, that’s not the case. Inside, the 29-year-old Cunningham hunkers his 6-foot-2-inch frame on a dumpy couch. His heavy arms extend from his sides, palms up, so two Chihuahuas, Angel and Chuay, can curl under them. Although it’s 10 a.m. on a weekday, he’s wearing slippers.

He leans forward to lift some paperwork out of a plastic tub on the coffee table. The phone rings, and he answers with a soft voice. It’s just a friend, and soon he hangs up. He’s waiting for a particular type of phone call—one from a representative of a debt collection agency or a credit card company, whom he’ll try to ensnare like a Venus fly trap. It’s not unlikely that Cunningham’s next call will be from a bill collector, since he’s between jobs—except for being in the Army Reserve—and owes $100,000 in debts.

While most Americans with unpaid bills dread the collector’s call, Cunningham sees them as lucrative opportunities. Many collection and credit card companies, intentionally or not, violate little-known consumer rights laws, and Cunningham’s favorite pastime is catching them doing so and then suing them. In fact, it’s a profitable side job.

Call it ironic, but the only house on the block that appears to be the foreclosed end to some sad financial story is in fact the home of one of the debt collection industry’s emerging and persistent threats. Cunningham calls himself a private attorney general—someone who files private lawsuits in the public interest. Debt collectors call him a credit terrorist.

Patrick Lunsford, who edits InsideARM, a trade magazine for the debt collection industry, knows the term. “There is a sub-group out there that does actually advise people on how to bait [collectors],” he says. “That’s something that really gets under the skin of, well, obviously, collectors.”

Cunningham beats the debt collectors at their own game. He turns their money-making practice into a financial liability. He is a regular guy who has become a radical enemy of the banking system.

In 2005, two foreclosures pushed Cunningham near financial ruin. Like many Americans, he fell enchanted by the siren’s song of easy credit and borrowed more than $100,000 to bet on risky, high-yielding investments, such as stock in the now vilified sub-prime mortgage industry. Then, while stationed with the Army in El Paso, he attempted to become an absentee landlord and got zero-percent-down sub-prime mortgages to buy low-income four-plexes in Houston and Dallas. With the interest earned on his high-yielding stocks he was paying back his low-interest credit card debt; now, he was using the mortgages to borrow even more.

Then, the bottom fell out. Investors like Cunningham fell the fastest. He sold his Houston homes, but his Dallas properties were foreclosed on. The collection calls started. He was running scared.

Desperation took him online in a search of anything that could save him from his own $100,000 in bad choices. One afternoon while sitting on his couch in his El Paso home, he found a way to fight back. He stumbled across hundreds of other distraught consumers like himself on credit message boards, each with some different version of the same story of bad choices and greed. And, he found a new way to deal with his debt: He could hide behind the law.

His new online friends pointed him to a number of federal and state statutes protecting consumers like him against overly aggressive and abusive debt collectors and a credit system stacked against the little guy. If you knew your rights, he learned on the message boards, you were very likely to catch a collector violating them. Then you could sue.

Cunningham armed himself with this knowledge, and the next time a debt collector called, the trap was set.

It didn’t take long. Cunningham had canceled a home alarm service with ADT Security after two months, and the company had billed him a $450 early termination fee, which he disputed. ADT sent his account to Equinox Financial Management Solutions, a third-party debt collector. The collection agency sent him a letter asking that he call back immediately. He dialed, armed with a voice recorder.

“Can you garnish my wages if I don’t pay?” he asked.

“Yes,” the voice on the other end of the line said.

“Can you put a lien on my house?”

“Yes.”

Wrong answers. Turns out, Texas consumer rights laws are some of the most consumer-friendly in the country. And according to a federal consumer protection law, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), debt collectors are prohibited from threatening legal action that would violate state laws. In this case, garnishing wages or putting a lien on Cunningham’s house would violate the Texas Debt Collection Act.

Cunningham knew he had a good enough case to file a lawsuit against the debt collection agency, and for his first lawsuit, he decided to enlist the help of a lawyer. Two months later, he had a check in his hand for $1,000.

“It’s like discovering fire,” says Cunningham, thumbing through the stack of lawsuit papers on his table.

He immediately started devouring as much information as he could about the three chief federal laws that protect consumers from collectors: the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). In the next four years, Cunningham accused debt collectors of misrepresenting the amount he owed (an FDCPA violation that entitles a consumer to collect up to $1,000). He sued over prerecorded and auto-dialed calls to his cellular phone (a TCPA violation worth up to $1,500 per call). He also filed complaints that agencies failed to investigate his claims that his credit file contains inaccurate information, a breach of the Fair Credit Reporting Act worth up to $1,000 per violation. All told, he filed 15 other lawsuits in federal court without the help of a lawyer, earning himself settlements totaling more than $20,000.

“Most people hear about the abuses that debt collectors do, but you just didn’t hear about the second part of it, where people sue the collectors,” he says.

Cunningham is one of thousands of hounded debtors who are trading in their paralyzing fears and learning to stand up for themselves. Americans as a whole owe some $2.5 trillion in consumer debt, according to the Federal Reserve, a figure that doesn’t include home mortgages. Nearly four in five Americans have credit cards and half carry a balance, according to the Obama administration.

In 2008, the Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, received more than 78,000 complaints against third-party debt collectors, 8,000 more than in 2007, and early numbers for 2009 indicate the growth will double. While the FTC gets the bulk of consumer complaints, today more consumers are fighting back with their own lawsuits than ever before. In 2009, nearly 10,000 cases under FDCPA, FCRA or TCPA statutes were filed around the country, mostly in federal courts. That’s a 50 percent increase from 2008, and an 83 percent growth from 2007.

A cottage industry has sprung up to counter the flood of cases. Two new companies now offer the credit and collection industries databases of repeat plaintiffs filing under the FDCPA. The companies, FDCPA Case Listing Service LLC and WebRecon, offer something akin to a background check for collection agencies. For example, if an agency received a delinquent account belonging to Cunningham, it could run his name through a database and learn he’s a repeat litigant; then the agency could either close his account or sue him first.

Back in his dim living room, Cunningham returns to the pile of paperwork on the table. His soft voice gets bolder when he recounts his war stories with the collection industry. His 15 lawsuits include one filed in federal court against Alliance One, a third-party agency collecting on behalf of Verizon. Alliance One added a $50 collection fee and misrepresented the debt he owed Verizon, he says, which is an unfair practice under FDCPA. Another lawsuit was over the collection of an outstanding bill from Time Warner. The collection agency, Advantage Cable Services, failed to post a surety bond required by the state of Texas in order to collect debts here. Plus, after telling them to stop calling his cellular phone with automated calls, they continued, so he sued and won around $3,500, the industry standard for many consumer rights violations. (Collection agencies frequently settle such lawsuits because that’s cheaper than taking them to trial.)

His debt with Time Warner hasn’t gone away, and he’s in the middle of his biggest FDCPA violation lawsuit ever, demanding upward of $200,000 from the current collection agency.

Debtors, either because they feel morally obligated or because they don’t know their options, get backed into a corner by their creditors and believe they have to repay their debts, he says. Not so with Cunningham. “I don’t have to do anything but stay black and die,” he says, a small, smug smile on his lips.

Cunningham wasn’t always such a stickler.

As a kid growing up in Detroit, family time meant gathering around the living room table to play stock market board games. His mother was a registered nurse, and his father worked for 25 years as a computer engineer for Ford. When he was 15, Cunningham met his “first millionaire,” as he tells it, still wide-eyed. This high school teacher grew wealthy off the then-booming real estate market of the mid-’90s. “He accomplished it through business and not sports,” he says. “For me, that was where the light first went on.”

Cunningham, a high school athlete, dreamed of making millions playing pro football, but he was accepted to U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where a degree would give him a more grounded back-up plan. The economics major also sought out an additional perk unique to West Point: stipends and absurdly low-interest loans. In his junior year, in 2002, Cunningham took out the maximum amount for a loan and dumped the $25,000 into the booming stock market.

“Everybody was making easy money,” he recalls, and the young cadet wanted a shot at making even more. He spent hours on his dial-up Internet connection learning money-making strategies that capitalized on the cheap and easy credit of the times. By Googling “credit help” or “increase credit score,” he landed on message boards on which posters shared how-to tips to boost his credit score and dupe major banks and credit card companies into giving him cards with credit limits around $10,000 and $20,000 at low interest rates. He’d borrow from the cards, invest the money in stocks with payouts higher than his interest rate and pay back the debt with the profits.

Cunningham learned on these boards that the credit card companies, banks and the credit bureaus worked together to determine not only your credit score but how much credit to extend you and at what interest rate.

Cunningham had no problem spending all the money anyone would loan him, but he needed to pay off some of the accrued debt to maintain his credit score. He knew his military loan did not get reported to any of the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. So, by paying off his credit card debt with money from that loan, he artificially maintained his credit score and continued to be approved for high credit. Sounds fishy, but Cunningham didn’t feel that he was taking advantage of the system, at least not anymore than the next guy or the brokers and bankers at the time.

“It’s their system,” says Cunningham. “I didn’t make the rules. I’m just learning what the rules are.”

Cunningham now had more than $100,000 in credit card debt, but he had a lot of money coming in as well. He was a big-time shareholder in one sub-prime lending company, Nova Star Financial, and for three years in a row he saw dividends as high as 20 percent for his investment.

Any money he was making went right back into the system. Those good times, of course, wouldn’t last.

Not wanting to miss out on the easy money in real estate buying and selling, he bought two low-income four-plexes in Dallas in 2005, using a mortgage company for the loan. He put no money down, but the interest rate was high.

Then he got burned. The four-plex’s seller wasn’t completely honest about the occupancy of the properties. Cunningham’s scheme disintegrated within six months. He was scrambling to make the mortgage payments at the high interest rate without any tenants. He knew it wouldn’t be long until he couldn’t make the payments and he would be foreclosed on. Somehow, he didn’t despair.

“I remember one day I just got pissed,” Cunningham says. “I’m running around trying to keep the ship afloat, and the banks don’t care.”

Cunningham had called the bank as well as the FBI to report the mortgage fraud committed by the seller, but nobody pursued his case.

“The regulators, the FBI, they don’t care. So, why should I care?” he says.

The Dallas properties were foreclosed, and his obsessively maintained credit score seemed wrecked. Cunningham returned to the online credit board for help. This time, however, he wasn’t looking to add an artificial shine to his credit score, he was looking for a way out of the ashes. Cunningham discovered a whole other world of consumer-generated knowledge. This was a rogue group of disgruntled consumers who were trying to save themselves and their credit by filing lawsuits when the collection industry screwed up the mechanics of debt reporting and collection. What he found was an instrument not of repair or reconciliation, but of vengeance.

“All the conventional wisdom, all the right people say, ‘Pay your bills on time and work with your creditors,'” Cunningham says, recalling his thoughts at the time. Yet he had discovered a new set of people who posted their credit reports on line and their successful lawsuits, showing how much money they won in settlements that simultaneously removed a bad debt from their credit report. “I said, ‘Maybe there’s another way.’ Again, just revolution. I never even thought about it.”

The knowledge on these boards originated from consumers testing the boundaries of the credit system through their own experiences. The nature of this information, from the beginning, was a mixture of anarchistic tendencies, vengeance and greed. Now the wisdom of the boards has been distilled into an e-book published in January. Debtsmanship was written by Steven Katz, a former New York debt collector turned consumer advocate, who now lives in Phoenix. In 2005, Katz founded a message board called “Debtorboards,” with the slogan “Sue your creditor and win!”

Katz doesn’t believe that people are morally obligated to pay back their debts. That notion was invented by debt collectors as a way to beat people into submission, he says. “Bill collectors would love for you to send them a check and then explain to your kids because you have the moral obligation to pay your debt they’re not eating this week,” he says. “But they don’t see the moral obligation to feed your children or yourself.

“People are brainwashed to think that paying a credit card is more important than paying for the necessities of life,” Katz says. “If you’re in a position where you have to make a choice, my argument is food, clothing and shelter come first… Nobody ever went to hell for not paying a debt.”

“Fight back” is the take-away message from a visit to Debtorboards, which is intended to help consumers who wish to file lawsuits without the help of lawyers. Debtorboards outlines steps consumers can take to deal with bothersome debt collectors. For example, if a debt collector is only bothering you, you could send them a letter or sue them. However, if you’re so far in debt that you see no way out but bankruptcy, then you can check out the board’s “frustrating the skip tracer” technique. There, you’ll find tips on how to run and hide from a collector.

Another Debtorboards user is 29-year-old Daniel Smith, who lives with his fiancé outside of Seattle, Washington. Early in 2009, he tried to obtain financing for a home, but was turned down by Bank of America. He soon discovered that an old girlfriend had put his name on her bank account before she fell into massive debt. He wrote angry letters to the bank, but nothing changed. He sat down at his computer and typed in “Bank of America” and “Fair Debt Collection Act” and soon landed on Debtorboards. “I spent hours upon hours upon hours on there,” Smith says. “The big epiphany is I’m a little guy but I’ve got a voice and I’m going to use it.”

Like Cunningham, Smith now armed himself with voice recorders and began keeping meticulous financial files. His file cabinet grew quickly. “I mean there’s nothing I don’t document now and that’s probably the best thing a consumer can do.”

Smith is an Army vet, an EMT, and a project manager for a construction company. He doesn’t advocate stiffing the original creditor on the bill. In fact, Smith will often pay the original creditor, but still go after the violating collection agency.

“The standard line from collection agencies is always, ‘Oh, gosh, no, we never violate.’…For the most part, the reality of it is you can sit down and find violation in almost every collection attempt made in America.”

Cunningham insists that the court system ignores lawsuits over frivolous violations. His cases, he claims, are built on true screw-ups. Cunningham won his first lawsuit, after all, after a collection company threatened to garnish his wages and put a lien on his house, both violations of Texas law.

Although that first lawsuit was filed with the help of a consumer rights lawyer, Cunningham has been filing on his own since then. Once he saw that the entire amount of the original settlement was upward of $3,500, and he only got $1,000, while his lawyer pocketed the rest as payment, Cunningham was motivated to go pro se.

“I remember seeing the $3,500 and thinking shoot that’s a lot of money, and I’m only getting a grand, so maybe I can do a little better than that if there is a next time.”

Cunningham made sure there’d be a next time. A company was trying to collect on an outstanding utility bill. They threatened to send this debt to the credit bureaus and wreck his credit score. He ended up paying the utility company the money he owed, but sued the collection company because of how they threatened and harassed him for the debt. The case earned him close to $3,500.

He was fast becoming one of the most hated debtors in Dallas, and part of an especially loathed minority of debtors in the country.

Cunningham returned to Texas from a year of active duty with the Army in late 2007, and moved to Dallas. He continued filing lawsuits against debt collection agencies, and he became ever more active on the message boards, holding long conversations about the state of the country with his online pals. In the meantime, he noticed that Debtorboards founder Steven Katz had created a new thread titled “The list you want to be on.” Here, Katz reported that a new company had appeared that was dedicated to aiding collection companies scrub their database against repeat FDCPA litigants, like Cunningham.

Cunningham toyed with the idea of suing them. After all, he thought, if they were working with the collection industry and the credit bureaus (FDCPA Case Listing Service partnered with TransUnion in 2009), then the companies sounded like credit reporting agencies to Cunningham, which would mean they would have to abide by certain credit reporting laws. Cunningham wrote to FDCPA Case Listing Service asking for a copy of his credit report (by law, a credit reporting agency must provide a consumer report if asked for one). Instead of a report, however, Cunningham found a lawsuit against him in his mailbox filed in May 2008 in Atlanta federal court. It alleged: “The defendant subscribes to and makes postings to a Web site in which consumers share information and promote litigation against the collection industry…The defendant has now conspired with others on the internet to incite civil litigation against plaintiff for the exclusive purpose of extorting money from the plaintiff.”

FDCPA Case Listing Service asked the court to declare that they are not a consumer reporting agency and not subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. To Cunningham, this was a clear attempt to silence him. Cunningham filed a motion to dismiss the case. For one thing, filing the suit in Atlanta was improper venue, Cunningham wrote. They should have sued him in Texas. Furthermore, since Cunningham hadn’t actually sued the company, the company had no valid reason to sue him. The court sided with Cunningham.

WebRecon offers a similar but expanded service to FDCPA Case Listing Service. Rather than only track FDCPA cases, WebRecon makes an effort to track FCRA, TCPA, and state and local cases, as well. WebRecon is headed by Jack Gordon out of Michigan. Gordon ran his own third-party collection agency for years until a spate of FDCPA lawsuits in 2008 forced him out of business. He is familiar with Cunningham’s type.

“This is definitely, if I can use a really strong word, a cesspool,” Gordon says. “The overwhelming majority of these suits are not pro se. Now when you’re focusing exclusively on pro se, I think you’re getting into a little bit of a different area. I’ve spent time personally on some of the Web sites that a lot of pro se litigants frequent…I would have to say they are far more radicalized element of society, and there’s certainly I think reason for concern.

“You’re dealing with somebody who’s looking for an opportunity. They revel in either getting opportunities or making opportunities to try out everything they’re learning online. That’s hardly an exaggeration,” he says, laughing. “It’s really an experience spending time there!”

Gordon may have a personal vendetta against Cunningham types, but so do others who represent the collection industry.

ACA International is the largest trade group representing third-party debt collection agencies. Tom Morgan is the Texas executive director for ACA International and he believes that FDCPA lawsuits will continue to rise as more and more people in this economy can’t pay their debts. He views the agencies as a kind of indirect victim in the rising tide of consumer fury and desperation.

“While our members do get filed on from time to time, the FDCPA is so highly technical there are quote, technical, violations that can occur,” Morgan says. “You know, somebody makes a mistake. But there’s no intent, OK, to defraud people or to violate the law.

“Usually it’s settled because the agency says, Uh, we didn’t intend to do that. Our collector said the wrong thing and we fess up and say, ‘I didn’t mean to do it but I did it…

“And this is where some of our members feel aggrieved in that because there’s a hyper-technical opportunity for a plaintiff’s attorney to come in, it is cheaper to settle than to fight it. And sometimes they’d really like to fight it because they don’t believe they are guilty, but it’s so costly, so they settle it.”

Thomas Stockton is on the executive committee of ACA International and also the founder and chief executive of a local collection agency, CMI. (Cunningham is in the midst of an ongoing legal dispute with CMI, which picked up his outstanding Time Warner debt.)

“In my opinion there are two reasons why there are more suits being filed today,” Stockton says. “You’ve got the Internet sites…And, it’s easy to file suit. You can do it on your own. You don’t have to have an attorney.”

Stockton says, however, that the better question is how many of the suits are successful.

The answer depends on how you define success. Debt collectors point to all the settlements they are forced to make because it’s cheaper than fighting a frivolous suit. To Cunningham and other pro se litigants, any payment is a victory.

“Does if make sense to spend $10,000 to win this suit or pay the litigant $500 to settle?” says Stockton. “Depending on the situation, it becomes a business decision at some point.”

Cunningham filed his lawsuit against Credit Management, L.P. (CMI) in August 2009, claiming violations in the amount of around $200,000—by far his gutsiest lawsuit yet. The original bill for Time Warner was for $79.84 back while he was living in El Paso. Cunningham admits he may have missed the last payment for the Time Warner bill. Time Warner, rather than validate the bill, sent his account to a collection agency. That was ACS, which Cunningham sued for violating his Texas rights, as well as federal law. ACS closed his account, but the debt wasn’t forgiven. Instead, CMI picked it up.

CMI started calling Cunningham’s cell phone with an auto-dialer, leaving prerecorded messages to please call them immediately regarding an outstanding bill. Cunningham told them to stop calling his cell phone on the auto-dialer, but they continued, each call a violation of TCPA. As Cunningham disputed the bill, CMI by law is also expected to cease collection efforts. So every call was another violation of FDCPA. Plus, to this day, CMI has not provided Cunningham with anything from Time Warner, he says, either a bill or a letter, verifying that he in fact owes anything, another violation of the law. “I don’t really know if I owe it,” Cunningham says. “If I do, send me a bill. If they don’t want to send me a bill, I don’t think I need to pay ‘em.”

CMI has countersued Cunningham, and even asked the court for a protective order from Cunningham: “Plaintiff Craig Cunningham (herein “Plaintiff”) has filed suit against a business, Credit Management, LP (herein “CMI”), and twenty-seven (27) of its employees in their individual capacities,” reads the motion for a protective order filed in Northern District of Texas in December 2009. “Defendants move for a protective order to protect Defendants from the annoyance, oppression, undue burden and expense of objecting and responding to improper, repetitive and irrelevant discovery requests.”

In December, Cunningham was called in for a six-hour deposition, the longest he’s ever sat through, at which the lawyers printed out pages of his online comments to accuse him of acting like a lawyer. Plus, CMI insists that they didn’t violate any laws and that Cunningham is acting in bad faith. Although the company already offered Cunningham money to settle the case, Cunningham refused, asking for much more than the “industry standard,” as Cunningham calls it, of $3,500.

“If they don’t pay a bunch of money, if they don’t feel pain, they will not change,” he says.

A big win in his case against CMI could go a long way toward clearing Cunningham’s debts—if he ever chose to pay them, that is.

“I took outsize risks, and I got burned,” he says. “When myself and some other fellow small investors were losing their assets, nobody cared.”

Up until now, everything was about making easy money for Cunningham. Now, it’s about justice—or at least what he sees as justice.

“When you or I make a mistake, they say, ‘Hey, tough nuts, be smarter next time, you know, bad luck, didn’t work out for ya,” he says. “When the fat cats on Wall Street make a mistake, they say, ‘Oh, national emergency! We’ve got to bail these guys out.”

Since nobody has showed up to bail Cunningham out, he’s decided some of the $100,000 debt he once amassed will never get paid back.

“I already paid them off,” he says. “The government took my money without asking me and gave it to the banks. And since I owe the banks money, but they already got my money from the government, I say we’re even.”

January 25, 2010

Capital One BUSTED By West Virgina Attorney General

Attorney General Darrell McGraw has sued Capital One Bank (USA), N.A. and four other companies in the Circuit Court of Mason County for unfair and deceptive acts and practices, unlawful debt collection practices, and unconscionable conduct in connection with their credit card lending and collection practices.

Capital One Bank (USA) is a national bank headquartered in Glen Allen, Virginia. It has about 500,000 credit card accounts with West Virginia consumers. Capital One Services, LLC, Capital One Services II, LLC, Capital One Services III, LLC, and COSI Receivables Management, LLC are Delaware corporations that service and collect on the credit cards issued by Capital One Bank.

The complaint filed in Mason County is based on numerous violations of West Virginia’s consumer protection laws. The complaint alleges that Capital One solicited consumers to enter into debt repayment plans by sending them solicitations that were disguised as offers of new credit. The offer was sent to consumers who had charged-off accounts with Capital One or other creditors. Under the terms of the offer, Capital One agreed to provide the consumer $1.00 of new credit in exchange for the consumer’s agreeing to transfer the entire account balance of a charged-off account to the new credit card account. The consumer was required to make payments on the old debt in order to receive any further increases in the credit limit on their new credit card.

By transferring the old debt onto a new credit card, Capital One was able to charge interest, late fees, and over-the-limit fees on debt that otherwise would not have been subject to those fees. It also allowed Capital One to re-age the debts so that the applicable statute of limitations period started new.

The complaint also alleges that Capital One: issued multiple low-limit credit cards, each charging exorbitant fees, rather than raising credit limits on consumers’ existing accounts; unconscionably imposed over-the-limit fees on consumers’ accounts; sold services to consumers who could not benefit from the services; and, billed and attempted to collect for credit card accounts that were never activated.

Attorney General McGraw stated, “Capital One’s practice of offering nominal extension of credit, if and only if, the consumer agreed to pay off a debt too old to be sued on is tantamount to loan sharking.” Until recently, the Attorney General was under a federal court injunction that prohibited him from suing the bank for its credit card practices; however, on January 4, 2010 United States District Court Judge Robert Goodwin granted the Attorney General’s motion to modify the injunction. Under the new order, the Attorney General is not prohibited from suing the bank to enforce non-preempted substantive state laws.

For more information or to file a complaint, please contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division. Call 1-800-368-8808, write to P.O. Box 1789, Charleston, WV 25326-1789, or visit his website at wvago.gov.

Florida Banksters To Pay For Shrinking HELOCs

Filed under: Florida,Mortgage

HousingWire – Fraudulent reductions in Home Equity Lines of Credit (HELOCs), revolving credit collateralized by one’s home, may become the focus of a forthcoming series of state-led hearings in Tallahassee, and the man behind the plan is setting big banks in his sights.

Florida State Senator Mike Haridopolos is calling for a round of investigations to explore claims that banks fraudulently or arbitrarily reduced HELOCs to improve their bottom lines, according to a press statement this weekend.

“I have heard the stories of this happening across our state and our country, and the courts are filled with lawsuits,” Haridopolos said. “This needs to be investigated because, if true, it’s outrageous.”

The Republican State Senator is also calling on Congress to conduct national hearings. Specifically, Haridopolos is urging the examination of this alleged practice within banks that received government funds through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

“When Congress gave away the taxpayers’ money to the banks, they guaranteed the public that if the banks did not use it to lend money, they would immediately call for hearings and hold the banks accountable,” Haridopolos said.

He added: “Since then, we have seen the President sit down with the leaders of the big banks and refuse to meet with the average Americans who are being hurt by their practices… I can tell you, the banks may control [Washington] DC, but the people control Florida and we’re going to keep it that way.”

Haridopolos is calling for hearings to feature testimony not only from homeowners, but consumer groups and banks, “so that everyone has a chance…to weigh in,” according to the press statement.

Federal regulations allow HELOC suspensions under adverse financial circumstances and in situations where the underlying property experiences a significant decline in value. According to the statement from Haridopolos’ office, homeowners claim banks allegedly use false pretenses in order to freeze their family capital.

Florida is not immune to the substantial peak-to-trough house price declines. And a spokesperson for Haridopolos told HousingWire some borrowers claim banks order no appraisals and make no assessment of actual property value decline before freezing their HELOCs.

Similar claims by an Illinois homeowner recently resulted in a suit against JP Morgan Chase (JPM: 39.21 +0.13%). The suit alleged Chase froze a HELOC without disclosing its valuation methods or explaining to the borrower to what degree the house value fell.

Despite the allegedly fraudulent HELOC freezes and the scarcity of new HELOC lending, consumers in hard-hit areas like Florida are still buying in ways that aren’t measured against the backdrop of local foreclosures and price declines.

Time to get those Banksters.

January 23, 2010

Farewell to Infamous Mann-Bracken

Filed under: Collections,Judgment

Sarah Bloom Raskin, Maryland Commissioner of Financial Regulation, announced that her office, a division of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, has summarily suspended the collections activities of Rockville-based Mann-Bracken, which describes itself as one of the nation’s largest debt collections law firms. This enforcement action follows an investigation which revealed that Mann-Bracken was ceasing business activities, such as failing to cash checks that had been sent to the firm in connection with collection related matters. Last week, the firm notified Maryland courts that it “will be closing at the end of the month” and was “working with clients to transfer cases.”

“We are determined to make sure that consumers receive the protections they deserve whether collections are done through the mail, on the phone or, increasingly, through our courts. When they do not, we will act and act quickly,” DLLR Secretary Alexander M. Sanchez said.

The State Collection Agency Licensing Board, a board within DLLR’s Office of the Commissioner of Financial Regulation, issued a summary order today that suspends all of the firm’s consumer debt collections activities, including collections actions in Maryland courts, and prohibits the filing of further collections-related cases.

“This is yet another in a string of problems we are uncovering as the collections industry has made a headlong rush for our state’s courtrooms,” Commissioner Raskin said.

Last month, the Commissioner of Financial Regulation reached an agreement with Encore Capital, Midland Credit Management and related parties to settle alleged violations of federal and state debt collection laws. That settlement included a civil penalty of $998,000 and an agreement to alter certain business practices to ensure that both their litigation-related collection activities and their non-litigation (or “traditional”) debt collection activities comply with all applicable state and federal laws. Mann-Bracken represented Encore-Midland, as well as various other businesses, in thousands of collections-related actions initiated in Maryland courts over recent years.

January 15, 2010

FHA Waives 90 Day Flip Rule!

Filed under: FHA Loan

Measure to help bring stability to home values and accelerate sale of vacant properties

In an effort to stabilize home values and improve conditions in communities where foreclosure activity is high, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan today announced a temporary policy that will expand access to FHA mortgage insurance and allow for the quick resale of foreclosed properties.  The announcement is part of the Obama administration commitment to addressing foreclosure. Just yesterday, Secretary Donovan announced $2 billion in Neighborhood Stabilization Program grants to local communities and nonprofit housing developers to combat the effects of vacant and abandoned homes.

The waiver will take effect on February 1, 2010 and is effective for one year, unless otherwise extended or withdrawn by the FHA Commissioner.  To protect FHA borrowers against predatory practices of “flipping” where properties are quickly resold at inflated prices to unsuspecting borrowers, this waiver is limited to those sales meeting the following general conditions:

  • All transactions must be arms-length, with no identity of interest between the buyer and seller or other parties participating in the sales transaction.  
  • In cases in which the sales price of the property is 20 percent or more above the seller’s acquisition cost, the waiver will only apply if the lender meets specific conditions.
  • The waiver is limited to forward mortgages, and does not apply to the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) for purchase program.

Specific conditions and other details of this new temporary policy are in the text of the waiver, available on: FHA 90 Day Waiver

January 14, 2010

Credit Repair Curry

My husband and I were one week from closing on a house when we got a denial call from the mortgage company. When they check his credit to prequalify they found that My husband has or had 0 credit. When they went back to check our credit before closing, they found a 2600.00 collection debt on my credit. upon some investigating it appears to be my husbands debt. It appears that they placed it on my credit report, instead of his is that legal?

he sublease [without having him sign any papers] his apartment to a friend who moved out oweing rent. I had nothing to do with that. wh and how can they go after me?

Curry (more…)

HAMPered

Pro Publica – Nathan Reynolds is something of an expert on the government’s foreclosure prevention program. A mortgage broker who’s worked in the Chicago area since 1998, he’s seen both his business and his home’s value plummet in the past few years. After receiving his own trial loan modification from JPMorgan Chase, he’s helped others apply for modifications through the program on his own time.

But in November, after Reynolds had made trial loan payments for seven months, Chase told him his mortgage would not be permanently modified. Chase had determined that his personal financial troubles were only temporary — because Reynolds had expressed optimism that the administration’s policies might rescue the housing market, boosting his income.

That’s not a legitimate reason for a loan servicer to deny someone’s modification, according to the Treasury Department’s guidelines for the program. And Reynolds’ experience — along with the cases of two other homeowners examined by ProPublica, shows how servicers have created unnecessary hurdles that, in some instances, violate the loan program’s rules.

Housing advocates say they frequently see homeowners rejected or kept in a trial modification for questionable reasons. “There’s a real resistance on the servicers’ part to making permanent modifications,” said Diane Thompson of the National Consumer Law Center.

The administration set a goal of helping up to 4 million homeowners through the $75 billion mortgage modification program as a way to blunt the boom in foreclosures. Treasury has produced a growing number of mandatory guidelines for banks and other loan servicers to review applications and perform the modifications. In exchange for tailoring loan payments to 31 percent of the homeowner’s monthly income, both the servicer and the owner of the loan receive incentive payments.

Servicers representing 85 percent of the housing market have signed up to participate. Applicants must first go through a trial period before their mortgage payments can be permanently reduced. But servicers have been slow to convert hundreds of thousands of trials into permanent modifications — as of November, only about 31,000 had been made permanent. That spurred Treasury to publicly criticize the servicers’ performance and to put out new guidelines in recent months to speed up the process.

Treasury said recently that the effort has resulted in a “significant increase” in offers of permanent modifications, but numbers demonstrating how significant won’t be available until February.

ProPublica has reported since last June on homeowners’ frustrations in receiving a prompt answer from servicers, particularly the program’s largest servicers — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and CitiMortgage. In response to widespread complaints, those servicers have dramatically increased staffing and touted other improvements, such as new document management systems.

But when homeowners do get an answer, the reasons don’t always jibe with how the program is supposed to work. Housing advocates say this is a direct result of a lack of effective oversight of servicers in the program, something ProPublica has focused on before.

‘An Excuse to Deny Someone’

Reynolds was a prime candidate for a loan adjustment and was among the earliest homeowners to receive a trial modification.

His mortgage brokerage business had followed the market downward, and as a result, he’d fallen three months behind on his interest-only mortgage. Area real estate cratered. His own home, bought in 2001 for just over $400,000, had rocketed up to about $1.2 million in value in 2006, and then down again to about $350,000. With a refinancing in 2005 and a home equity line of credit with Countrywide, his mortgage debt exceeded his home’s value by more than 70 percent.

Soon after the loan program was announced last February, Reynolds applied. He received an application in late April and was accepted, making his first payment of about $2,400 (down from $3,300) in May. He made six more payments. Like many borrowers in the program, he says he was asked over and over to send the same documents and later, updated versions of those documents. Finally, in late November, he received an answer: He was denied a permanent loan modification.

The reason? A Chase employee explained to Reynolds that they’d determined his financial difficulties weren’t permanent. In his application, he’d written that he believed that the government’s rescue efforts would “save the U.S. housing market” and that his business “will once again be profitable.” The Chase employee told him that statement indicated his hardship was only temporary.

“That’s just nonsense,” said Thompson of the consumer center. “To me, that sounds like an excuse to deny someone.”

Chase spokeswoman Christine Holevas told ProPublica that Reynolds had been denied “because the skill and ability is still there to earn the income.” Since he’d “stated in his letter that business would be picking up,” it was “not considered a permanent hardship,” Holevas said.

Such a determination contradicts Treasury’s guidance to servicers for the program. A FAQ issued to servicers says the program does not “distinguish between short-term and long-term hardships for eligibility purposes.”

When ProPublica asked about this guideline, Holevas did not directly respond. She did offer another reason for denying Reynolds: Chase’s review of financial information showed his income had not decreased.

Reynolds, who has a wife and two small children, says no Chase employee had made such a claim to him and that the documents he provided show that his mortgage business dropped more than 50 percent in 2009. He submitted a new hardship statement in December, in which he tried to make clear that his troubles are real and lasting. Holevas said those documents would be reviewed.

Now, Reynolds says his finances are at the breaking point and bankruptcy appears unavoidable if Chase denies him again. “I did everything that was asked of me, but Chase has me backed into a corner that I cannot get out of.”

The Nine-Month Trial

Six months into a trial modification, Gary Fitz of California still doesn’t know whether or when his mortgage will be permanently modified, and he’s been told he’ll have to wait for a few more months.

Under the program’s design, the trial period was supposed to last three months, giving time for the servicers to collect and evaluate the homeowner’s financial information. At the end of the trial, if the homeowner fit the program’s criteria and had made all three modified payments, the servicer was supposed to promptly make the modification permanent.

Instead, trial modifications routinely last more than six months, homeowners and housing advocates say.

There are a number of adverse consequences of a trial period’s dragging on, said the consumer law center’s Thompson. Because a homeowner is not making a full payment, the balance of the mortgage grows during the trial period. The servicer reports the shortfall to credit reporting agencies, so the homeowner’s credit score can drop. And most importantly, says Thompson, the homeowner isn’t saving money in case the modification fails and the home is foreclosed. “Keeping someone in a trial modification really does not do them a favor,” she said.

Fitz’s case shows why some homeowners have remained in limbo so long.

He sought a loan modification in the spring of 2009 because his wife’s salary had been cut. Like millions of others, he applied soon after the administration announced the program last February. He was accepted for a trial modification and made his first payment in July.

Fitz was prepared for an uphill struggle. A Wells Fargo customer service representative told him early in the application process that he should make seven copies of his financial information — because Wells Fargo would likely lose it more than once. He says he’s sent the same paperwork in five times.

When the trial stage lasts so long, servicers commonly ask homeowners for updated financial information months into the trial period. Fitz, for example, submitted his paperwork for the first time last spring. But when Wells Fargo requested an updated package in December, it showed that he’d received a pay raise last June of about $80 per month.

Because of that, Wells Fargo started him over on a new trial period – even though his trial payments climbed just $27, from $1,733 to $1,760. His first payment on the new trial period is due Feb. 1, meaning that by the time he completes it, he will have been making trial payments for nine months.

Wells Fargo spokesman Kevin Waetke said the company does not comment on individual borrower’s cases. He did say, however, that “the federal guidelines require a final review of updated financial documents before moving any Home Affordable Modification from trial status to complete.”

That’s not true. In a Treasury guidance to servicers issued in October, meant to streamline the review process, it says there is “no requirement” to “refresh” the homeowner’s documentation as long as it was up-to-date when it was originally received.

Wells Fargo also appears to have begun Fitz’s second trial period contrary to Treasury guidelines. A Treasury guidance last April said that a servicer should not begin a new trial period if a homeowner has only a minor income change (defined as exceeding the “initial income information by 25 percent or less”). Guidelines issued later are even more restrictive about starting a new trial period. The reason is clear: The purpose of the trial period for the homeowner is to demonstrate the ability to pay, and such a small change in income is unlikely to affect that.

Asked to respond, Waetke said that “given the complexity of the program, the volume of calls we receive and the number of modifications currently in process, there is the potential for a mistake to be made.” He added that Wells Fargo would continue to review the case.

Buying Time

Sometimes there seems to be no reason at all for a trial period to drag on.

Cynthia Mason of Texas, another homeowner with a Wells Fargo mortgage, also recently restarted her trial period after several months.

Last spring, she sought a loan modification because medical and other expenses had made it impossible for her to afford her mortgage payment on a fixed alimony income. She’d planned to supplement that income with a job, but has been unable to find anything. Like Fitz, she began the program in July.

In October, good news came with a phone call: She’d been accepted for a permanent modification. She waited for the final paperwork to arrive, but it never did. Instead, while speaking to a Wells Fargo employee about an unrelated issue six weeks later, she found out that she’d in fact been denied. When Mason inquired why, she says she was told some documentation was missing, but the employee could not tell her what it was. She also learned she owed late fees because she’d paid the modified payment, not the original, full payment, in November and December.

When she complained about the late fees (which were eventually canceled), she was passed to a different employee who told her she was being put back into a trial period. She didn’t understand why. Another representative finally told her that she’d been denied because of a negative “Net Present Value” test. The test is the calculation at the center of the Treasury Department’s program: It determines whether the loan’s owner (sometimes the lender, sometimes a mortgage-backed security’s investors) is likely to make more money modifying the loan or not. A negative result means the servicer has no obligation under the program to modify the loan and is a common reason for denial.

But in Mason’s case, a Wells Fargo employee told her she’d nevertheless been put back into the trial period in order to “buy time.”

Wells Fargo spokesman Waetke declined to speak about Mason’s case but did say that the bank sometimes extends the trial period “to allow customers time to get the documents so we can complete the review.” Mason says she doesn’t know of any documents that might be missing, and she’s not optimistic about receiving a permanent modification. By extending the trial, Mason told ProPublica, Wells Fargo is “just prolonging the inevitable” – denial.

January 12, 2010

Shadow Inventory

Filed under: Foreclosure,Real Estate

DSNews.com – Although the Obama administration has worked to suppress foreclosures, it appears these efforts may not be enough, according to Bank Foreclosures Sale, a foreclosure listing service.

High unemployment continues to plague the real estate market, and according to a recent article in the New York Times, an estimated 2.4 million foreclosed homes will be added to the list of 2010 foreclosures. As a result, Bank Foreclosures Sale predicts prices will decrease another 10 percent.

Simon Campbell, a real estate analyst for the company, said it appears the real estate market may see a surge of shadow inventory properties appear on the market. These are properties that have not been calculated into official inventory numbers and include homes repossessed by lenders through foreclosures and similar actions and homes where owners are 90 days or more delinquent on payments.

Unemployment remains at a record high, and congressional leaders continue to look for ways that millions of people who have lost their jobs will be able to stay in their homes. While current statistics show lenders may finally be closer to finding a solution for the home mortgage crisis, Campbell said the question now is about how fast these lenders can work to stem potential foreclosures.

“Until we see a reduction in the number of foreclosures, we cannot get too hopeful about restoring housing industry stability,” Campbell said.

January 11, 2010

Mortgage Tetrameter

Hi Paul,

My soon to be Ex-Husband and I bought a home in December of 2008.  We are currently going through a divorce.  I chose to stay in the home with our children, after our seperation.  Now, several months later, I am unable to make the $2,200.00 Mortgage Payment on my own.  We have only owned the home for 1 year and our principal has only decreased by about $6,000 since we purchased it.  This leaves no room to pay a realator’s comission and the closing costs, even if we could get it to sell for the original purchase price.  To make matters worse, our neighborhood builder went bankrupt.  We now have a new builder.  The new homes that are being built are smaller, but also much cheaper.

I have almost maxed out my credit card, taken a loan out against my 401K and borrowed money from my parents, just to pay the mortgage by the end of each month.  I have not yet fallen behind by 30 days, but I am creaping much closer. 

My real estate agent suggested a short sale.  My credit is not super and I am very concerned that by doing a short sale, it will drop my score considerably.  I have three children to support and need to be able to find somewhere else to live.  I want to make sure that my decision is a sound one. 

My lender (Citi Mortgage)offered to lower my payments to $1,450 for twelve months and submit a loan modification request to FHA (I have a FHA Loan – 30 yrs fixed @ 6.25%).  However, Citi Mortgage would expect a baloon payment of $10,000 at the end of the 12 months.  I can’t afford to pay that kind of money.  If I was to request the Loan Modification, would I be allowed to put my home on the market? 

I am having a very hard time figuring out what to do.  I can’t afford to pay the Mortgage and am starting to drown in debt because of it.  Which of these options would you suggest, given my circumstances?  Loan Modification or a Short Sale?  Any advice that you can offer would be great!!

Thanks,
Renee (more…)

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