Top Firm Accused of Rigging Mortgage Mods, Foreclosures

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Ocwen Subprime Mortgages
The Associated PressBenjamin Lawsky, superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, detailed allegations in a letter to Ocwen.
By Alex Veiga

One of the nation's largest servicers of home loans may have denied struggling borrowers the chance to fix loan problems and avoid foreclosures, New York's financial regulator has alleged. An investigation by the state's Department of Financial Services found that Ocwen Financial Corp. inappropriately backdated foreclosure warnings and letters that rejected mortgage loan modifications, making it nearly impossible for borrowers to appeal the company's decision.

Many borrowers who had fallen behind on loan payments also received warning letters months after the deadline for avoiding foreclosure had passed, department investigators found. Potentially hundreds of thousands of backdated letters may have been sent to borrowers, likely causing them "significant harm," Benjamin Lawsky, New York's Superintendent of Financial Services, wrote in a letter to Ocwen released Tuesday.

"Ocwen's indifference to such a serious matter demonstrates a troubling corporate culture that disregards the needs of struggling borrowers," Lawsky wrote in the letter to company's general counsel. In a statement, Atlanta-based Ocwen blamed software errors in the company's correspondence systems for generating improperly dated letters.

The latest claims of wrongdoing against Ocwen come less than a year after the company agreed to reduce struggling borrowers' loan balances by $2 billion as part of a settlement with federal regulators and 49 states over foreclosures abuses. It's the most recent evidence that many of the same kinds of abuses that made the housing crisis and the Great Recession worse are still happening some seven years after the housing bubble burst.

Subprime mortgage lenders thrived during the real estate boom years, as many borrowers turned to a variety of nontraditional, riskier loans when they couldn't qualify for traditional, fixed-interest mortgages requiring down payments. But it all began to unravel in 2007, as defaults started to pile up. That eventually triggered a mortgage meltdown that sent foreclosures soaring and propelled the U.S. housing market into its worst skid in decades.

In the years since, companies like Ocwen have been enlisted to handle payment collection on behalf of banks and, in many cases, investors who own securities backed by bundled home loans. They also handle customer services, loan modifications and foreclosures.

Such companies have also been criticized for not helping homeowners quickly enough -- resulting in delays that lead to more fees and profits for servicers. Many have been the target of consumer lawsuits. Some mortgage-servicing companies processed foreclosures without verifying documents.

Ocwen is the fourth-largest mortgage servicer in the country and the biggest that isn't a bank. It specializes in servicing high-risk mortgages. At the start of this year, it managed $106 billion worth of subprime mortgages, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, a mortgage industry tracker

The New York Department of Financial Services launched a probe into Ocwen in August amid allegations that the company overcharged struggling homeowners on a product called force-placed insurance, which servicers force borrowers to buy if they don't maintain voluntary homeowners' insurance. If mortgage borrowers don't pay up for newly purchased insurance, Ocwen forecloses on their homes.
Among its latest findings, the regulator determined that Ocwen failed to investigate the backdating of its letters to borrowers nearly a year after an employee raised questions about the practice.

The letter did not specify whether the backdating was intentional or the result of poor oversight by Ocwen. "The existence and pervasiveness of these issues raise critical questions about Ocwen's ability to perform its core function of servicing loans," Lawsky wrote in the letter.

In its statement, Ocwen said initially that its systems generated improperly dated letters to 283 of its borrowers in New York. It later said it is aware of additional borrowers, but didn't specify..
The company added that it is investigating two other cases and cooperating with the New York regulator.

"We believe that we have resolved the letter-dating issues that have been identified to date, and we continue our investigation as to whether there are additional letter-dating issues that need to be resolved," the company said.

A company spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for details on how many Ocwen borrowers nationwide received backdated letters or lost their homes as a result of the delayed warning letters. Ocwen's stock slumped $4.78, or 18.2 percent, to $21.48 Tuesday. The stock is down 61 percent this year.

Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.
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