Monday, June 07, 2010

Countrywide Pays $108 Million to Settle Fees Complaint

Countrywide Pays $108 Million to Settle Fees Complaint
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: June 7, 2010

WASHINGTON — The Federal Trade Commission announced Monday that two Countrywide mortgage servicing companies had agreed to pay $108 million to settle charges that they collected excessive fees from financially troubled homeowners.

The $108 million payment is one of the largest overall judgments in the commission’s history and resolves its largest mortgage servicing case. The money will go to more than 200,000 homeowners whose loans were serviced by Countrywide before July 2008, when it was acquired by Bank of America.

Jon Leibowitz, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, said that Countrywide’s loan servicing operation charged excessive fees to homeowners who were behind on their mortgage payments, in some cases asserting that customers were in default when they were not.

The fees, which were billed as the cost of services like property inspections and lawn mowing, were grossly inflated after Countrywide created subsidiaries to hire vendors to supply the services, increasing the cost several-fold in the process, the commission said.

In addition, the commission said that Countrywide at times imposed a new round of fees on homeowners who had recently emerged from bankruptcy protection, sometimes threatening the consumers with a new foreclosure.

“Countrywide profited from making risky loans to homeowners during the boom years, and then profited again when the loans failed,” Mr. Leibowitz said.

The $108 million settlement represents the agency’s estimate of consumer losses, but does not include a penalty, which the commission is not allowed to impose.

Clifford J. White III, the director of the executive office for the United States Trustees Program, which enforces bankruptcy laws for the Department of Justice, said that the commission’s settlement “will help prevent future harm to homeowners in dire financial straits who legitimately seek bankruptcy protection.”

The settlement bars Countrywide from making false representations about amounts owed by homeowners, from charging fees for services that are not authorized by loan agreements, and from charging unreasonable amounts for work.

In addition, the settlement requires Countrywide to establish internal procedures and an independent third party to verify that bills and claims filed in bankruptcy court are valid.

“Now more than ever, companies that service consumers’ mortgages need to do so in an honest and fair way,” Mr. Leibowitz said.

The F.T.C. has not yet established how much will be paid to each consumer, in part, Mr. Leibowitz said, because Countrywide’s record keeping was “abysmal.” About $35 million of the $108 million total was charged to homeowners already in bankruptcy proceedings, with the remainder charged to customers whom Countrywide said were in default on their mortgages.

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