Three states have filed lawsuits against First Alliance Corp., two accusing the subprime lender of deceptive practices and the third of charging excessive fees.
An Illinois suit filed this month accuses the Irvine, Calif., company of "equity stripping"-that is, persuading homeowners whose mortgages are mostly paid off to take out big new ones with high fees.
Minnesota sued Nov. 23 accusing First Alliance of using deceptive practices to con consumers into accepting high-fee, high-rate loans.
And Massachusettes filed a suit Oct. 30 saying that the high fees First Alliance charges violate the state's consumer protection act.
The Illinois attorney general's office said it has investigated about 50 loans First Alliance made in the state and found a "clear pattern of deceptive practices." The investigation is continuing.
Many of the victims are over 50 and speak English as their second language, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney general said. In one case, she said, First Alliance charged a Serbian couple more than $19,000 in fees for a $118,000 loan.
A First Alliance spokeswoman said the company had not seen the lawsuit and therefore could comment.
Equity stripping is a "burgeoning unfair-lending practice," the Illinois attorney general's office said. The state is seeking a permanent injunction, revocation of all licenses that let First Alliance do business in there, and a $50,000 fine for each violation of Illinois law, the spokeswoman said.
She said any eventual fine is difficult to predict because the state's Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices law is "open-ended."
The Minnesota lawsuit says First Alliance "used technical and pseudo- technical terms to confuse consumers, to hide extra loan fees and exploding interest rates," said Prentiss Cox, the state's assistant attorney general.
The suit involves about 200 borrowers, he said, many of them elderly. "We found that their marketing is specifically targeted to the elderly," Mr. Cox said.
The Massachusetts suit involves about 300 borrowers, said a spokeswoman from the state's attorney general's office. In some instances First Alliance charged as much as 23 points to originate a loan, she said.
Earlier this year the American Association of Retired Persons joined a suit that charged the lender with targeting vulnerable homeowners and charging high fees. And in October the company said it had been notified by the federal Justice Department and attorneys general from seven states that it was under investigation. First Alliance said then that it would cooperate fully with the investigations and was complying with all laws.
The mortgage industry has recently been the target of several state and federal investigations. Last month the Department of Housing and Urban Development said it would conduct an industrywide investigation into discriminatory lending.