Two Countrywide Financial Corp. mortgage-servicing companies will pay $108 million to settle claims that they collected excessive fees from 200,000 borrowers struggling financially to keep their homes, the Federal Trade Commission said Monday.
The settlement amount is one of the largest imposed in an FTC case. It will be used to reimburse those borrowers, whose loans were serviced by Countrywide before it was acquired by Bank of America in July 2008.
"Countrywide took advantage of consumers at the end of their financial rope," said FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz, calling it "callous conduct."
Leibowitz said it will take months for the agency to track down victims of the overcharges, which Countrywide had referred to internally as a "countercyclical diversification strategy."
"Countrywide's record-keeping was abysmal," he said. "Most frat houses keep better records."
Information about the settlement and claims process is available at www.FTC.gov/Countrywide.
At a Washington news conference Monday that was Webcast nationwide, Leibowitz and others commended Bank of America for "stepping up to the plate" in negotiating the settlement.
Before the Bank of America takeover, Countrywide was the largest U.S. mortgage servicer, with $1.4 trillion in its portfolio, the FTC said.
According to the complaint, the two servicers - Countrywide Home Loans Inc. and BAC Home Loans Servicing L.P. - ordered property inspections, lawn mowing, and other services meant to protect their interests. Countrywide then created subsidiaries to hire third-party vendors to perform those services, marked up the price often by 100 percent or more, and charged the homeowners the marked-up fees.
"Borrowers would be charged $300 for mowing a loan," Leibowitz said. "Instead of $600 in fees for completed foreclosures, consumers would be charged $2,500."
In servicing loans for those borrowers in Chapter 13 bankruptcy, Countrywide made false or unsupported claims about the amounts owed or the status of the loans, the complaint said.
In addition, the complaint said, the servicers failed to tell borrowers in bankruptcy when new fees and escrow charges were being added to their loan accounts. After their bankruptcy cases closed and the borrowers no longer had court protection, Countrywide tried to collect those charges, often through foreclosure.
Clifford White, director of the executive office of U.S. Trustees, which enforces bankruptcy laws, said that although his office refers such cases for criminal prosecution, "I have no comment on whether we have made such referrals" in this one.