Archive for April 25th, 2011

Strategic Defaulters – Are They Smarter?

People who default on mortgages they can afford to pay are savvy about credit and tend to have better credit histories than other defaulters, new research shows.

By David Zalubowski, AP file

FICO, the firm that created the widely used FICO credit score, studied credit bureau data to develop what it says is a more accurate portrait of strategic defaulters. FICO defines them as people who are underwater on their mortgage — owing more than their home is worth — and more than 90 days delinquent on payments but current on other credit lines.

Compared with other mortgage defaulters, strategic defaulters generally:

•Have higher credit scores. The majority of them have credit scores above 620, FICO’s research shows. FICO scores go up to 850.

•Use credit more judiciously. More than 35% of non-strategic defaulters max out their credit cards vs. less than 10% of strategic defaulters.

•Have not been in their home very long.

•Shop for new credit card lines before they strategically default.

“They’re getting their life in order,” says Andrew Jennings, chief analytics officer at FICO.

Lenders have traditionally used the degree of home price depreciation as a basis for predicting strategic defaults. But FICO’s research gives a more complete picture, Jennings says. The company last week announced new tools that it says will help lenders better identify strategic defaulters before they default.

Other companies, including CoreLogic, have launched similar products as the strategic defaults continue to erode home values.

While the exact number of strategic defaults can’t be determined, studies indicate they account for many lost homes. The University of Chicago Booth School of Business estimates that strategic defaults accounted for 35% of defaults in September vs. 26% in March 2009. In January, the Nevada Association of Realtors released a study showing that 23% of Nevadans who lost homes admitted to strategically defaulting.

Nationwide, 23% of homeowners with a mortgage are underwater, CoreLogic says. That means the problem of strategic defaults is likely to persist, says Craig Focardi, a TowerGroup banking consultant.

Strategic defaulters can be hard to identify because they typically make their house payments, and pay other bills, until they begin the strategic default process, Focardi says.

By identifying at-risk borrowers sooner, lenders may be able to guide them to options other than strategic default, say Frank Pallotta of Loan Value Group. His company aims to reduce strategic defaults by getting lenders to reward borrowers who pay off their loans.

Mark Stopa

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Are You a Robo-Signer?

You may not think you’re a robo-signer, and, hopefully, you’re not.  But in today’s climate of foreclosure chaos, you may be a robo-signer and not even know it!  That’s what West Palm Beach resident Liz Mills realized when she googled her name on-line, as the Palm Beach Post describes here.

Is this what it’s come to nowadays?  The fraud is so rampant that people have their signatures forged and don’t even know it? 

Here’s the article, another in a series of fine reporting by Kimberly Miller. 

West Palm Beach resident Liz Mills learned she was a robo-signer when a friend suggested she search her own name online.  On foreclosure blogs and in at least one newspaper article, the 51-year-old process server was singled out for the numerous and varying styles of her signatures on summons paperwork used to prove her efforts in locating home­owners in foreclosure.

Now Mills is coming forward in affidavits filed in three foreclosure cases, saying she didn’t sign the paperwork and never signed in front of a notary despite notary stamps affixed to the documents.

In one case, Mills allegedly signed a return of non-service, meaning the homeowner could not be found, for a foreclosure in Lehigh Acres near Florida’s west coast – a town where Mills said she has never been.

“I’m not really sure what’s going on with all of this or what could happen, but it’s upsetting because if you read the articles it’s like they are trying to make the individual process servers the fall guy,” said Mills, who became a process server 12 years ago. “I think they just wanted to move the paperwork along faster.”

Service of process is sometimes the first notice a homeowner has that the bank has filed for foreclosure .  Sloppy service or “sewer service,” as some defense attorneys call bad service of process, can leave a homeowner in the dark and defenseless until after the final judgment and a notice of sale is sent out.

Defense attorney Tom Ice, of Royal Palm Beach-based Ice Legal, believes Mills’ testimony in the three cases could force them to be re-served, sending the banks back to square one in the proceedings.  “It’s always bothered me that a high number of my clients come in and say they didn’t know there was a lawsuit,” said Ice, who is defending the homeowners in the cases.

With the crush of foreclosures statewide, process service has become big business. Once entrusted only to sheriff’s deputies, summonses may now be handled by special process servers certified by the court. The servers often work for larger companies that dole out the legwork.

Mills worked for several process service companies, including Miami­-based Gissen & Zawyer Process Service Inc.

The Florida Attorney General’s Office is investigating the company after allegations of backdating returns of service, improper billing practices and filing questionable affidavits with the courts.

Mills said she believes her signatures were forged on documents because she has a short name that’s easy to sign.

But Alan Rosenthal, an attorney defending Gissen & Zawyer, said the company believes the documents in question in the Mills cases bear her true signature.

“Gissen & Zawyer does not have any of its personnel sign affidavits of service other than the process server whose name is on the signature line, and does not condone such behavior by anyone who works for them,” Rosenthal said. “Gissen & Zawyer believes the signatures on the Liz Mills affidavits are hers.”

Process service company Caplan, Caplan and Caplan, which Mills also worked for and is involved in one of the cases, had no comment.

While Mills’ affidavits attesting to forged documents directly affect three foreclosures, there could be an impact on other cases that bear her name.

Judges have recently dismissed foreclosures based on bad service of process, although the cases can usually be refiled.

A 4th District Court of Appeal decision in December sided with the homeowner, based on paperwork that contained an illegible grouping of numbers – either the server’s identification number or the time of service. Both are required by state statute.

Mills, a former waitress, said she became a process server because she was a single mom and it offered a flexible schedule.

The typical charge for process service is $45, about $10 of which goes to pay Mills, who may have to make several visits to a home.

When Gissen & Zawyer didn’t think she was working fast enough, she said, she was called to Miami for a conference.

“They stood there and screamed at me that I was not serving their work fast enough,” said Mills, who worked for the company about 10 months.

Ice said the reprimand shows speed was valued over thoroughness.  “These were processed like an assembly line,” said Ice, whose firm handled the 4th DCA case. “The pressure was not just on Mills. It’s on all of the process servers to do whatever it takes to get the job done quickly.”

Mark Stopa

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Can You Find the Fraud?

I want to do something a little different today – give everyone a chance to see what I see and tell me what they think.  So here goes. …

Attached, here, is an Assignment of Mortgage filed in one of the foreclosure lawsuits I’m defending.  Can you spot the fraud (or what I perceive to be the fraud)?  You don’t need to resort to any other documents – you should smell something fishy merely by reviewing this three-page document. 

Where’s the fraud? 

I’ll post my opinion shortly, in a follow-up blog.

Mark Stopa

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