Monday, October 18, 2010

Mortgage Fraud Big Banks Buying Small Property Debts Foreclosing on Homes

Tags: Mortgage Fraud Big Banks Buying Small Leans to Steal Great Homes for No Money

This long article from an investigation by Fred Schulte and Ben Protess of the Huffington Post shows that the greed of the banks and hedge funds goes unabated. They are taking small leans on homes from $100 to $800 and buying them and then foreclosing on homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. For example, Bank of American and JP Morgan are involved heavily. They hide their identify and make it hard for others to find the true owner.

Jim Kawakami, Oct 18, 2010,

Foreclosure Mills Got Gifts for Altering Documents Huffington Post Ryan McCarthy, Oct 18, 2010 At a large Florida "foreclosure mill," a manager signed up to 1,000 documents a day without reading them and employees were given gifts to speed up foreclosure paperwork, according to depositions released today by the Florida Attorney General's Office.

The news, also reported by Tampa Online, comes as Bank of America, the nation's largest bank by assets, announcement that it would resume more than 100,000 foreclosures in 23 states after an internal investigation of its practices.

Florida authorities are investigating the law offices of David J. Stern over how it handled foreclosure paperwork. As the AP notes, Cheryl Salmons, an office manager at the law offices of David Stern, "would sign 500 files in the morning and another 500 files in the afternoon without reviewing them and with no witnesses," according to Kelly Scott, a former assistant at the firm.

The perks for good performance were considerable, according to Scott's statement. Tampa Online notes office employees were lavished with gifts:

"As a perk of Samons' [sic.] job, Stern's office would routinely pay her personal mortgage, a car payment, her electric bills and her cell phone bill, according to Scott, who told investigators Stern also bought Samons [sic.] a new BMW sport utility vehicle every year and gave her and other employees jewelry. Additionally, Stern purchased employee David Vargas a house, a car and a cell phone, Scott claims in her statement." …

The New Tax Man: Banks and Hedge Funds Buy Small Leans on Homes to Sharply Increase Interest Rates on the Debt to Make It Harder for Home Owners to Pay the $800 Debts By Fred Schulte and Ben Protess
Huffington Post Investigative Fund

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Nearly a dozen major banks and hedge funds, anticipating quick profits from homeowners who fall behind on property taxes, are quietly plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into businesses that collect the debts, tack on escalating fees and threaten to foreclose on the homes of those who fail to pay.

The Wall Street investors, which include Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase & Co., have purchased from local governments the right to collect delinquent taxes on several hundred thousand properties, many in distressed housing markets, the Huffington Post Investigative Fund has found.

In many cases, the banks and hedge funds created new companies to do their bidding. They gave the companies obscure, even whimsical names and used post office boxes as their addresses, masking Wall Street's dominant new role as a surrogate tax collector.

In exchange for paying overdue real estate taxes, the investors gain legal powers from local governments to collect the debt and levy fees. At first, property owners may owe little more than a few hundred dollars, only to find their bills soaring into the thousands. In some jurisdictions, the new Wall Street tax collectors also chase debtors over other small bills, such as for water, sewer and sidewalk repair.

VIDEO by Lagan Sebert

The Big Business Wall Street Won't Discuss Full Video

Some states allow the investors to tack on as much as 18 percent interest and a passel of legal fees and other charges. When property owners fail to make full payment, the investors can sue to foreclose - in some states within as little as six months.

In June, Bank of America snatched up liens on properties in Florida owned by low-income residents and nonprofit public interest groups, including a Salvation Army shelter, a preschool and a wildlife rescue group involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill cleanup, the Investigative Fund found in its examination. Bank of America also bought liens on properties of the wealthy, including a professional basketball star with the Los Angeles Lakers, Lamar Odom.

Some observers of the financial services industry said they were surprised to learn that banks, some of which received billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded bailouts in recent years, were rushing to profit from homeowners having trouble paying their tax bills.

"This is not how I'd like to be making my money," said James Cox, a Duke University School of Law professor who specializes in corporate and securities law. "I would find it personally distasteful to foreclose or press a claim against individuals, many of whom have lost their jobs and are in tight economic straits."

Five big banks involved in the industry, known as tax lien investing, collected a total of more than $106 billion in bailout money through the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as TARP.

Over the last year, Bank of America, which received $45 billion in these taxpayer funds in 2008 and 2009, has bought liens on properties in scores of municipalities in at least a dozen states. Bank of America repaid the government in 2009.

Still, noted Cox: "There's no bailout for people struggling to pay their taxes."

Years ago, the big banks left the buying of tax liens largely to local real estate specialists and small-time investors. These days, banks and hedge funds, stung by the failure of many speculative investments, see tax liens as a relatively safe option that can yield returns of around 7 percent.

Some banks also are packaging tax liens as securities - in a similar way to how unpaid home loans are securitized - and selling them to investors.

If mortgage holders fail to pay overdue taxes, an investor could waltz off with a home worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for the price of paying the owner's tax bill. Most homeowners eventually pay their debt.

Put it all together and it is makes for a solid investment, said Lloyd McClendon, an owner of in Plantation, Fla., one of several companies that conducts online auctions in Florida and other states.

"There's an awful lot of new, big money in the sales this year," said James Powell, a longtime Florida investor who remembers a time when local investors flocked to live auctions at courthouses. Typically, they would bid for liens by holding up paddles. Powell is still one of the few in the liens business who makes purchases using his own name.

But the smaller investors, noted Powell, have been overtaken by well-heeled banks and funds that now bid online, and in volume.

Banks and hedge funds usually buy the liens through online auctions that permit them to bid in bulk, and they can use any name they want.

The giant Bank of America, for instance, has bid in Florida tax lien sales using colorful names such as Bennu, LLC, named after a mythical bird said to be the soul of the ancient Egyptian sun god. It also has bid as Osprey, LLC, and Ecru, LLC, named after the French word for a pale brown color. …

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