WASHINGTON — Countrywide Home Loans Inc., a unit of Bank of America Corp., Monday agreed to pay $108 million to settle federal charges it collected excessive fees from homeowners who were struggling to keep their homes.
The settlement with the Federal Trade Commission is one of the largest judgments imposed in an agency case, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. The settlement funds will be used to reimburse 200,000 Countrywide customers who were allegedly overcharged before it was acquired by Bank of America in July 2008. As part of the settlement, the company didn't admit or deny the allegations.
The FTC alleged that Countrywide made risky loans to homeowners during the boom years, and profited when the loans failed by overcharging clients on default-related services when they fell behind on their loans.
Bank of America, in a statement, said that the case covers transactions made before Countrywide was acquired by Bank of America and that it agreed to the settlement to avoid the expense of litigation.
"The settlement allows us to put all of these matters behind us," said Bank of America in a written statement. "Our commitment to transparency and fair and responsible customer treatment is carried through in provisions of the settlement with the FTC."
According to the complaint, Countrywide created affiliated companies that charged a large markup in fees, sometimes up to 100% or more for services like property inspections and lawn mowing services. Countrywide also made inaccurate claims about the amounts borrowers owed in bankruptcy cases.
"Countrywide took advantage of homeowners in two utterly unprincipled ways," Leibowitz said.
Leibowitz said the commission can contact every affected customer, adding, "We want to get this money to consumers as quickly as possible." The $108 million charge is an estimation of the money owed to former Countrywide clients, but until the settlement is finalized, the FTC will not be able to identify specific victims and refund them their money.
The FTC said the Countrywide settlement demonstrates the need for expanded agency powers that are contained in financial industry legislation pending in Congress.
"We're certainly not unaware that it is a propitious time to be speaking about these issues, including expanded rulemaking authority and fining authority," Leibowitz said.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) said in a statement that Countrywide's behavior shows that the blame for the housing crisis rests with lenders, not borrowers.
"This is a major breakthrough that closes one of the ugliest chapters of the entire subprime mortgage crisis" he said.
Before being acquired by Bank of America, Countrywide was ranked as the top mortgage servicer in the country, with a balance of more than $1.4 trillion in its servicing portfolio.
"Our house is gone. There is nothing that anyone can do to change that," said Robin Atchley, a Georgia former homeowner whose family filed for bankruptcy after falling behind on their payments. Atchley appeared with FTC officials as they announced the settlement in Washington.
"We had hoped that Countrywide would give us a fair chance to save our house. But it seemed as if Countrywide used the bankruptcy court to take advantage of our predicament and to profit from our struggle," Atchley added.