Economy

Countrywide To Settle Overcharging Strapped Homeowners

When homeowners whose mortgages were serviced by Countrywide fell behind on their home loan payments, the financial institution would force them to pay exorbitant fees for services like home inspections and lawn mowing ostensibly meant to keep up the properties but which government regulators said were really meant to boost Countrywide's revenues.

Countrywide, now owned by Bank of America, was sued by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC said Monday that the company agreed to pay $108 million to settle the case. About 200,000 consumers would be reimbursed through the settlement, according to the Associated Press.

An excerpt from the FTC's press release:

"Life is hard enough for homeowners who are having trouble paying their mortgage. To have a major loan servicer like Countrywide piling on illegal and excessive fees is indefensible," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "We're very pleased that homeowners will be reimbursed as a result of our settlement."

According to the complaint filed by the FTC, Countrywide's loan-servicing operation deceived homeowners who were behind on their mortgage payments into paying inflated fees — fees that could add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Many of the homeowners had taken out loans originated or funded by Countrywide's lending arm, including subprime or "nontraditional" mortgages such as payment option adjustable rate mortgages, interest-only mortgages, and loans made with little or no income or asset documentation, the complaint states.

Mortgage servicers are responsible for the day-to-day management of homeowners' mortgage loans, including collecting and crediting monthly loan payments. Homeowners cannot choose their mortgage servicer. In March 2008, before being acquired by Bank of America, Countrywide was ranked as the top mortgage servicer in the United States, with a balance of more than $1.4 trillion in its servicing portfolio.

When homeowners fell behind on their payments and were in default on their loans, Countrywide ordered property inspections, lawn mowing, and other services meant to protect the lender's interest in the property, according to the FTC complaint. But rather than simply hire third-party vendors to perform the services, Countrywide created subsidiaries to hire the vendors. The subsidiaries marked up the price of the services charged by the vendors — often by 100% or more — and Countrywide then charged the homeowners the marked-up fees. The complaint alleges that the company's strategy was to increase profits from default-related service fees in bad economic times. As a result, even as the mortgage market collapsed and more homeowners fell into delinquency, Countrywide earned substantial profits by funneling default-related services through subsidiaries that it created solely to generate revenue.

According to the FTC, under most mortgage contracts, homeowners must pay for necessary default-related services, but mortgage servicers may not mark up the cost to make a profit or charge homeowners for services that are not reasonable or appropriate to protect the mortgage holder's interest in the property. Homeowners do not have any choice in who performs default-related services or the cost of those services, and they have no option to shop for those services.

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