Financial giants have figured out yet another way to profit from fraud. After devastating communities across the country with shady subprime loans, the mortgage industry has launched a new assault on America’s neighborhoods. Big banks are now outsourcing their foreclosure processing to shady law firms with a history of breaking the law for a quick buck. These foreclosure scammers forge documents, backdate signatures, slap families with thousands of dollars in illegal fees and even foreclosure on borrowers who haven’t missed a payment.
Andy Kroll lays out the insanity in a terrific piece for Mother Jones. “Foreclosure mills,” as they are known, have been around for years, but they’ve become a much bigger problem as the mortgage crisis has deepened. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac spurred the creation of these social beasts decades ago to help them process large volumes of foreclosures quickly and cheaply. Pretty soon big banks wanted in on the action, and bailout barons at Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Bank of America starting sending foreclosures to these scummy law firms by the thousands.
Banks opt to outsource dirty work like this for a reason. It takes weeks to process the legal work necessary to kick somebody out of their home, since cops and judges don’t want to give borrowers the boot without proof. If you can cut down that processing time, you can save a lot of money on legal bills. Foreclosure mills cut costs for banks by cutting corners—when they can’t compile the documentation needed to push families out of their homes right now, they simply fabricate the documents. Still worse, these guys illegally withhold documentation from borrowers seeking to negotiate loan modifications with their banks—effectively forcing borrowers out of their homes instead of allowing them to cut a deal with the bank. When borrowers actually do straighten things out with foreclosure mills, the scumbags slap them with huge illegal fees. Kroll details a foreclosure mill that erroneously tried to evict a Florida couple who had been paying their mortgage on time. When it became clear that the couple could not be kicked out of their home, the foreclosure mill tried to charge them $18,500 in fees for mistakes committed by the foreclosure mill and the bank. The foreclosure mill even invented two new people who it said lived in the home in order to demand four sets of legal processing fees instead of two.
If nobody holds you accountable, then lying, cheating and stealing are very profitable business models. That’s one reason why banks love sending this kind of work to foreclosure mills. While the foreclosure mills and their lawyers have been bombarded with lawsuits for their trickery, the banks are not directly involved in the funny business. So Citi, BofA, Fannie and Freddie get to cut their costs with shady practices, but they don’t have to shoulder the legal liability for them, even though they must surely know what goes on (if they don’t know, they’re being astonishingly negligent, and should be held responsible).
The foreclosure mill scandal is very similar to a game the banks played in the craziest days of the housing bubble. A few years back, banks outsourced much of the work that goes into issuing mortgages to third-party mortgage brokers. Banks knew that many of these brokers were up to no good, and routinely trained brokers how to steer borrowers into unaffordable subprime loans. Banks also lobbied regulators aggressively for the right to look the other way when brokers abused borrowers or committed fraud. For a few years, banks made big bucks as mortgage brokers turned out fraudulent loans by the truckload. When those loans started defaulting, the banks pleaded innocence and blamed the brokers for the social and economic fallout.
So now that pumping out subprime loans is no longer a profitable endeavor, banks are resorting to similar tricks in order to cut their losses on those same loans.
Much of the housing bust is a story of inadequate regulations allowing banks to swindle society and get away with it. But much of the story is simple, straightforward fraud that has gone unpunished. Financial giants paid other firms to issue fraudulent loans, issued fraudulent loans themselves, packaged fraudulent loans into securities and sold them to investors, lied about their subprime mortgage holdings, invented new financial gimmicks to hide billions of dollars in debt, and even laundered hundreds of billions of dollars in drug money. But nobody is going to jail, or even receiving meaningful fines. Banks broke the law and hired other people to break the law for them, scoring big profits without being punished. Is it any wonder that they’re still at it?
Zach Carter is AlterNet‘s economics editor. He is a fellow at Campaign for America’s Future, and a frequent contributor to The Nation magazine.