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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.

But it would be possible for servicers to treat force-placing as a last-ditch form of investor protection conducted at the lowest cost possible. Instead, they have consistently chosen force-placed insurance deals that reward themselves at the expense of their clients — and have sometimes given insurers unfettered access to write policies on their portfolios. Banks have put little effort into justifying their force-placed practices because they were rarely asked about them.

"[T]he cost may be considerably more expensive than insurance you can obtain," says a September letter from SunTrust Banks Inc.'s mortgage unit to a borrower, which cites the baffling — but often repeated — line that high prices are necessary because the policy is underwritten "without inspection." (As a general matter, insurers do not routinely inspect residential properties in the course of underwriting, according to Thompson of the National Consumer Law Center, though a representative of one large insurer told American Banker that it always reserves the right to.) SunTrust declined to comment for this story.

Such practices have been in place for years, yet force-placed insurance has received very little attention outside of the servicing industry. Given the current volume of foreclosure activity and the unprecedented attention that ground-level servicing operations are now receiving, however, that could change.

The Dodd-Frank Act stipulates that charges for force-placed insurance must be "bona fide and reasonable," and correspondence with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners suggest that state regulators are aware of the potential for conflicts of interest in insurer selection. Asked whether pricing in the field is competitive, a representative of the NAIC responded that servicers have "no incentive to select a competitively priced product, but instead would be more concerned with selecting one they know best protects the bank's interests or one where they are provided with an incentive or inducement to enter into the transaction."

In response to a query by American Banker on possible interest in the force-placed insurance market, the Office of the U.S. Trustee, which oversees bankruptcy trustees and the administration of cases, referred without comment to an Indiana bankruptcy case in which it has asked Wells Fargo to produce documents "that support the belief that Debtors had failed to maintain insurance" and "premium notices; invoices; canceled checks; policies of insurance; insurance binders; and, requests for quotes or bids for insurance."

Wells is obligated to respond later this month.

Neither the U.S. Trustee's query of Wells nor the views of other regulators have filtered down to ground-level servicing practices, said consumer advocates like Thompson.

Golant, who hopes to begin deposing insurance industry officials in his force-placed cases within a few months, said he didn't believe the industry would willingly accept change.

"The banks' profits aren't connected to the performance of the loan," he said. "The people making policy, thinking the servicers are part of the solution to the foreclosure problem, need to understand that."