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Ties to Insurers Could Land Mortgage Servicers in More Trouble

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bank of America did not comment for the record. The bank's comment is now included.

When banks buy insurance on the homes of borrowers whose policies have lapsed, they get a great deal. Just not for the homeowners and investors who have to pay for it.

Nominally purchased to protect the owners of mortgage-backed securities, such "force-placed" insurance can be 10 times as costly as regular policies, raising struggling homeowners' debt loads, pushing them toward foreclosure — and worsening the loss to investors on each defaulted loan.

Evidence of abuses and self-dealing in the force-placed insurance industry suggests that there may be far larger problems in how servicers are handling distressed loans than the sloppy document recording that has been the recent focus of industry woes.

Behind banks' servicing insurance practices lie conflicts of interest that align servicers and their insurer partners against borrowers and investors. Bank of America Corp. owns a force-placed insurance subsidiary, and most other major servicers receive commissions or reinsurance fees on the very same policies they purchase on investors' and borrowers' behalf.

"There's no arm's-length transaction here, and that creates all sorts of incentives for the servicer to force-place excessive insurance and overcharge consumers for policies that provide minimal benefit," said Diane Thompson, of counsel for the National Consumer Law Center. "Servicers and insurers have turned this into a gravy train."

Sometimes the arrangements resemble simple kickbacks: Court documents show that a subsidiary of the country's largest specialty insurer paid undisclosed "commissions" for the rights to a servicer's force-placed business.

State court filings show alleged abuse in which banks charged borrowers for unnecessary insurance and backdated policies providing coverage retroactively. Often the insurance was acquired only after banks stopped advancing the premiums of delinquent borrowers' escrowed policies, causing those cheaper and more comprehensive policies to expire. In response to questions from American Banker, federal and state officials said that some practices that industry trade groups defend may not be legal.

"It is clear that [the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act] prohibits fee splitting and unearned fees for services that are not performed," said Brian Sullivan, spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Foreclosure defense and legal aid attorneys say force-placed insurance is found on most of the severely delinquent loans in this country. If so, the cost to investors may well be in the billions of dollars.

"This is clearly not in the investors' interest," said Amherst Securities analyst Laurie Goodman, who in May noted the potential for misconduct with Bank of America's force-placed-insurer subsidiary, Balboa Insurance Group. "Servicers are getting a huge chunk of money from force-placed insurance, and investors pay for it by higher loss severity at the liquidation of the loan."

With little regulatory oversight or even private investor awareness, force-placed insurance has helped make drawn-out foreclosures lucrative for servicers — far more so, in some cases, than helping a borrower return to performing status. As the intermediary between borrower and investor, servicers appear to be benefiting themselves at the expense of both.

Backdated Coverage
When attorney Jeffrey Golant took on his first forced-placement case, he thought he was looking at an administrative mistake.

A solo practitioner in Pompano Beach, Fla., Golant splits his time between foreclosure defense and insurance cases. He had been referred his first forced-placement case by his mother, Margery Golant — also a longtime foreclosure defense attorney — in May of 2008 when the dispute veered into insurance territory.

The problems should have been quick to sort out, Golant recalls. His client was current on her mortgage and claimed the lapse of insurance coverage on her home was the result of her previous insurer's error. Much of the new policy's coverage was redundant, Golant said, duplicating flood and wind policies that had remained in place. Moreover, billing her for expensive retroactive hurricane protection, for a year when there had been no significant storms, struck Golant as inherently ridiculous.

"I really thought they'd added an extra digit," he said.

But the servicer that had requested the policy — nominally Zions Bancorp., though like many regional banks, the company outsources its servicing and does not involve itself in loan-level decisions — wouldn't back down. The backdating was appropriate because "Had there been damage to your property during the uninsured time … you would have benefited significantly," the servicer said in one letter.

The Mortgage Bankers Association told American Banker that retroactive coverage is necessary to prevent gaps in insurance. But asked for an opinion on backdating a policy by nine months, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners told American Banker that insurance is "prospective in nature." Therefore, policies "should not be back-dated to collect premiums for a time period that has already passed," the trade group for state insurance regulators said.

The case got stranger when Golant's client visited the address listed for the insurer in an unsuccessful attempt to sort things out, he said. While the people there claimed to represent the servicer, they were operating out of an office belonging to a force-placed policy insurer since acquired by QBE Insurance Group.