4.3 million forms have been sent out under a flagship U .S. program to try to help the estimated 4 million people who may have suffered financially due to errors in their mortgage servicing.
Critics point to the fewer than 5 percent of potential beneficiaries, 214,000, who have requested a review of their cases as confirmation of suspicions that the process was designed to protect banks, not help consumers.
A February 2012 audit by San Francisco County officials found that 84 percent of the 400 foreclosures they examined contained irregularities.
An Independent Foreclosure Review was launched last November by 14 major mortgage servicers and targeted borrowers whose homes were in foreclosure during 2009 and 2010. Tens of thousands of homeowners have been found to be victims of the “robo-signing” scandal in which employees of mortgage servicing firms made up bogus documents to speed up foreclosures.
Depending on the nature of errors, remediation amounts range from $500 to $125,000 plus lost home equity – sums that consumer advocates say often pale in comparison to the overall financial and emotional damage caused by a wrongful foreclosure.
A report released last week by the Government Accountability Office found that the letters’ sent out to homeowners contained complex language, omissions of important information about remediation, and a failure to consider that some recipients speak or read little English which could “impede some borrowers’ ability to respond.”
In addition to the overwhelming lack of response, more than 5 percent of letters were returned as undeliverable, a problem that could have been prevented if counselors and others on the front line of the U.S. housing crisis had been involved when the outreach program was designed.
“The people who are most likely to receive one of these letters and be eligible are no longer at their addresses,” said Walter Walker, who has worked as a housing counselor for 20 years in Florida. “We have the resources to follow up, and in some cases find these people, but to my knowledge, not one housing counselor was consulted.”
Consumer advocates say the low numbers are indicative of the outreach’s flawed design.
While almost half of U.S. adults read at the level of a 13- or 14-year-old, the form is written at a second-year college level, according to an analysis by a consumer group.
The letters and the review’s website were not tested with target audiences, and the letters were sent out only in English, although 5.5 percent of the adult population in the United States reports they speak poor or no English.
Walker said his clients declined to fill out the form when they realized they were not guaranteed compensation, or were suspicious of it and unwilling to give out personal permission.
“Those were the two most common responses I got other than, ‘What is this?’ and throwing it in the trash can,” he said.
To improve the process, the GAO recommended making the form and website more readable and analyzing trends in borrower response and non-response.
The OCC spokesman said the agency is in the process of implementing the recommendations of the GAO’s report but could not comment on cases reviewed to date. He said the agency is considering doing an additional round of mailings before a new deadline on Sept. 30.
“The OCC has now essentially admitted that their outreach is a failure,” said Diane Thompson, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.
“They’ve now twice extended the time that people have to respond after being extremely adamant both times that there was not going to be an extension. The only reason to extend it is because your numbers are embarrassing.”