TheDC OP-ED: One nation, under fraud

Instead, when Jane returned home, the locks to her house had been changed and all of the property inside the house was gone. She still hasn’t recovered that property, and the bank hasn’t even told her where it is. According to Goldman, the wrongful repossession was first admitted, and then, inexplicably, the bank actually changed its mind and tried to make the outrageous claim that the homeowners’ association was actually the entity which had ultimately decided to change the locks and empty the house.

Stories like these are what prompted a class-action lawsuit against lenders in southern Florida, with Deutsche Bank being listed as one of the defendants. Unfortunately, the problem isn’t limited to Florida. California’s attorney general recently filed his own class-action lawsuit on behalf of all of his state’s homeowners regarding the use of fraudulent documents to foreclose. Ohio’s attorney general has announced that he will be prosecuting every single case of foreclosure fraud committed by Ally Bank, formerly known as GMAC, with an individual lawsuit. Each suit would carry with it a fine of up to $25,000 on top of the cost of repairing the damages caused by the erroneous foreclosure. Arizona’s attorney general has sent letters to more than 60 banks informing them that foreclosing on any homeowners with erroneous documents will be considered criminal fraud.

Things are particularly bad in states like Arizona because of a peculiarity of their respective state foreclosure laws. Banks don’t have to go to court to foreclose on a property in those states. Instead, they can simply show “proof” of rightful foreclosure to local officials, who then evict the homeowners. To fight back against fraud, the homeowners have to hire a lawyer—which many can’t afford to do—and win a lawsuit before the property is sold.

“A lot of this stuff gets by everyone,” said Kevin Harper of Harper Law PLC, which operates in Arizona. “State law says that if a bank makes a mistake when they foreclose and sell, they only have to pay for damages incurred by the rightful owners. And since so many homes are underwater, the banks often argue that the owners haven’t suffered any damage whatsoever. Even if there was rampant fraud, there really would be no way to stop it in Arizona. So many of these cases involve mortgages that have repeatedly been bought and sold, and what you get is some guy in a bank checking off boxes for a foreclosure without knowing why. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

No, that’s not a typo. Both Goldman and Harper used the exact same cliché to describe what the American financial system, the one taxpayers “needed” to pay untold billions to save, has become. Two hands without a brain, not even aware of the reasons they had to be bailed out. This was best highlighted by an event that generated plenty of late-night chuckles last fall, when Wells Fargo sued … Wells Fargo.

Wells Fargo wanted to foreclose on a condo unit which had multiple mortgages attached to it. Wells Fargo also owned one of those second mortgages. So Wells Fargo spent money to hire a law firm and file suit against the irresponsible lenders at Wells Fargo. Then, Wells Fargo spent money to hire a different law firm in an understandable effort to defend Wells Fargo from the vicious legal attack coming from Wells Fargo. The second law firm even prepared a legal statement for Wells Fargo which called into question the dubious claims being made by Wells Fargo. Sadly, Wells Fargo won the case, crushing the hopes of Wells Fargo.

As business reporter Al Lewis wrote at the time, “You can’t expect a bank that is dumb enough to sue itself to know why it is suing itself.” So goes the unprecedented wave of foreclosures that has swept across the country since the housing bubble popped. Mortgages have been bought, sold, and repackaged so many times through such an opaque process that banks have no idea who owns what. When they foreclose, they simply guess, making up the documents and information necessary to do so.

That’s how Bank of America could foreclose on homeowners who paid for their property in cash up front—repeatedly. Earlier in the year, Bank of America “foreclosed” on Charlie and Maria Cardoso, removing all of their property and changing the locks even as a realtor employed by the bank itself told it that there was no mortgage on which the Cardosos could skip payments. Eventually, the papers used by Bank of America were shown to have the wrong address. Someone, somewhere guessed. And Bank of America didn’t learn from its mistake.