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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.

Golant didn't understand why the insurer would be speaking on behalf of the servicer. But shortly after he began asking questions about the relationship between servicer and insurer, the case settled. Confidentially. At the insurer's request.

With the matter resolved, it would have made sense for a Florida solo practitioner who handles as many as 50 cases at any one time to move on. Golant, however, started investigating the connections between multibillion-dollar banks and specialty insurers.

"Frankly, it was their speed and willingness to settle that made me think they were not at all confident about the arrangement," Golant said. "I was still in the dark. But I got curious."

Collaborating with his mother, Golant says he began to take on more force-placed insurance cases, often agreeing to bill the borrower only if he won. Cases he pointed out to American Banker show no shortage of questionable alleged practices. In some instances, servicers force-placed insurance on borrowers in excess of their mortgage's face value and property's overall worth. (A representative of the Mortgage Bankers Association said the industry often is required to reinsure a property up to the cost of its replacement value, even if that's in excess of the mortgage.)

In other instances, servicers force-placed duplicative insurance on residents of condominium associations that insured their members' properties. In yet more, servicers had stopped advancing the premiums for a delinquent borrower's escrowed private insurance, allowing it to expire. When it did, they bought far more expensive force-placed insurance to replace it, and began advancing the premiums on that. This — a common practice, Golant says — was not just harmful to borrowers. It was inexplicable from the point of view of protecting investors.

What all the cases had in common was astronomically priced force-placed insurance, he said. There is no doubt that borrowers who aren't paying for their own insurance pose a heightened insurance risk. But servicers were billing Golant's clients for policies that cost as much as 10 times as much as the insurance they replaced. In one example confirmed by American Banker, an $80,000 property standing on a $40,000 lot was force-placed with a policy costing $10,000. Put another way, one year of insurance payments would strip away 13% of the structure's total value.

It wasn't just off-brand and subprime servicers who were tacking the high-priced policies on to borrowers' mortgage bills. It was the country's biggest banks, from JPMorgan Chase & Co. to Wachovia, now part of Wells Fargo & Co. Why did they seem so eager to purchase high-priced insurance on the homes of already struggling borrowers?

Golant got his answer in a case in which EverBank Financial Corp's servicing arm had allegedly allowed a borrower's $4,000 escrowed insurance to lapse in error and then replaced it with a policy costing more than $33,000. In response to written questions, a subsidiary of Assurant, one of the country's biggest specialty insurers, revealed that it hadn't kept all the money that EverBank's servicing operation had paid it. Instead it immediately paid EverInsurance, the servicer's subsidiary, a $7,100 "commission" and left the door open to further compensation.

For Golant, this set off alarm bells: instead of trying to place affordable insurance on his client's home, EverBank had taken what was at minimum a $7,100 cut. That was more money than EverBank would ever collect from actually servicing the loan, and EverBank had done nothing to earn it — except let Assurant write a high-priced policy on his client's house. (According to the MBA data cited by MortgageDaily.com, servicers earned on average $51 per loan last year.)

"The 'commissions' that [Assurant] paid … were in fact kickbacks," the attorney wrote in a complaint still being litigated. "This incentivized EverHome to select the most expensive force-placed coverage available, and to force-place insurance as frequently as possible."

EverBank is in the process of going public, and could not comment because of SEC restrictions on its public statements, a spokeswoman for the bank said. But, at least in substance, its relationship with an insurer is hardly unique. Agreements providing banks with commissions on force-placed insurance appear to be standard for many players, including one of the country's largest — Wells Fargo.

Wells declined an on-record interview for this story, though it acknowledged relationships with three force-placed insurers and provided other guidance. JPMorgan Chase did not speak on record with American Banker. A spokesman for Bank of America said by email it buys forced-placed insurance only "after several attempts have been made to notify borrowers that their insurance has lapsed and to remind them of their obligation to maintain continuous coverage." B of A is seeking a buyer for Balboa, which it inherited with its 2008 acquisition of Countrywide Financial Corp.

But the MBA defended commissions on force-placed business. It is common practice for an insurer to pay fees for business referrals, said Vicki Vidal, a vice president at the trade group. Asked if those commissions inflated the price that homeowners or investors ultimately paid, she said they did not.

"The rate is separate from the commission," Vidal said, adding that state insurance regulators can set limits on what premiums are allowed.