Countrywide to Refund Mortgage Borrowers $108m in Fees, Says FTC
More than 200,000 bankrupt Countrywide Financial mortgage borrowers will receive more than $108m in refunds for "rip-offs" they incurred during the "outrageous practices" at two of the mortgage provider's servicing operations, according to Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC -- headquarters pictured above). The two firms named in today's law enforcement action are Countrywide Home Loans and Countrywide Home Loans Servicing, now doing business as BAC Home Loans Servicing. According to a conference call this morning, Countrywide borrowers were "victimized" in bankruptcy in such a way that they emerged from proceedings still owing improper fees, said Cliff White, the director of Executive Office for U.S. Trustees, under the Department of Justice (DOJ), who helped litigate the law enforcement action. "Homeowners who file bankruptcy and obey the rules are entitled to a fresh start," he added. According to Leibowitz, Countrywide made it a business strategy to take advantage of a system of affiliates that would overcharge for services related to a home centered in bankruptcy filings. For example, Countrywide overcharged for valuation services and in subsequent property preservation once the home became vacated. "$300 for mowing a loan is extraordinary," said Leibowitz. "I want that job." Leibowitz said that Countrywide charged up to $2,500 in trustee fees even though entities such as Fannie Mae (FNM) cap such charges at $600. The FTC said that Bank of America (BAC), which took over Countrywide in 2008 was exceptionally cooperative in negotiating the settlement. Leibowitz adds that the FTC is asking Congress for more money and power to go after what it feels are unfair practices in the housing industry. The FTC set up a Web site for claims information, that went live today. The DOJ would not elaborate on impending proceedings against former employees of Countrywide. The terms of the settlement are available here. Write to Jacob Gaffney. Disclosure: the author holds no relevant investments.