WASHINGTON - The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has identified dozens of cases where mortgage companies appear to have illegally foreclosed on the homes of active duty military service members.
The finding was among many problems revealed in a new study of illegal, unethical or inept foreclosure practices by financial companies that were working with home mortgages of borrowers who were behind on their payments.
The study, released Thursday by several congressmen including Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., led to calls for national standards for foreclosure processes and better government oversight.
"We have seen countless examples of servicers giving borrowers the run-around and continuing the foreclosure process when a loan modification has already been obtained," the senators wrote in a letter to banking regulators, including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. "Perhaps the most egregious cases of servicer wrongdoing have been violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act by wrongly foreclosing on active-duty servicemembers. Correcting these problems and ensuring they do not reoccur should be a priority for all of your agencies."
The GAO reported that a regulatory review of two home-loan servicing companies found "almost 50 instances of foreclosures proceeding against military service members on active duty in violation of the [relief act]." The GAO said many of those violations occurred because the mortgage service companies didn't bother to check on an individual's service status before they foreclosed.
In an interview, Franken called the revelation of mishandled military foreclosures a scandal. "If people broke the law and foreclosed on service members, they should be indicted," he said.
Other charges in the GAO report were more familiar, but no less egregious, the senators said in their letter. Loan service employees signed tens of thousands of affidavits in the foreclosure process without ever looking at loan documents to determine default -- a process called robo-signing. Documents used to force people from their homes were not properly prepared or legally notarized. Foreclosure work contracted by loan servicing companies to third parties received little or no oversight.
Meanwhile, Franken said, loan servicers make it difficult for delinquent borrowers to even talk about solutions.
"I've talked to so many people who try to go to their [loan] servicers and can't get in touch with anyone," Franken said. "When they can reach the mortgage company, they never speak to the same person twice to try to work on ways to save their homes. A single point of contact is the most important thing in any of this."
As a result of increased scrutiny, the foreclosure process has slowed down nationally, the GAO said. The delays sometimes involve the mortgage servicing industry cleaning up after itself.
For example, Fannie Mae, a huge mortgage lender, told the GAO that one of its loan servicers was going to refile 100,000 foreclosure affidavits. Another Fannie Mae service planned to refile 50,000 affidavits. Extending the time it takes to force people from their homes could help those who are behind on their payments by allowing people to find jobs and get their finances back on track, the GAO said.
In January, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., the nation's second-largest bank, admitted that it had overcharged 4,500 service members on their mortgages. Congressional leaders are now weighing new legislation to protect service members from losing their houses or being charged punitively high interest rates while they are on forced absence.
In addition, the new consumer watchdog agency created by Congress recently created a special division, the Office of Servicemember Affairs, that will seek to protect military families from financial scams.
The Senate letter to banking regulators was signed by Franken and fellow Democrats Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Rep. Mike Capuano of Massachusetts.
Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752