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Baffling form letters add to foreclosure woes

A padlocked and boarded-up home is only one sign of the woes connected with foreclosures. Adding to the distress connected with the foreclosure process are bureaucratic form letters that confuse and frustrate homeowners caught up in the mess.
A padlocked and boarded-up home is only one sign of the woes connected with foreclosures. Adding to the distress connected with the foreclosure process are bureaucratic form letters that confuse and frustrate homeowners caught up in the mess.Shannon Stapleton / Reuters file

Nothing about the letter that Keturah Miller received late last year indicated it could be worth as much as $125,000 to her. So she put it aside and forgot about it for months until she stumbled across it while cleaning.

Miller, 34, a family liaison worker with the New York City Department of Education, read it over four times. It still made no sense to her.

"I can read the words, but the meaning of what they're saying? That's the confusing part for me," she said.

The letter was one of 4.3 million forms sent under a flagship U.S. program to try to help people who may have experienced financial injury due to errors in their mortgage servicing.

An estimated 4 million families lost their homes due to foreclosure from 2007 to 2012.

So far, fewer than 5 percent of the potential beneficiaries — 214,000 — have requested a review of their cases. It's a number that critics say confirms their suspicion that the process was designed to protect banks, not help consumers.

While there is no national figure for how many families were harmed by servicing errors, a February 2012 audit by San Francisco County officials found that about 84 percent of the 400 foreclosures they examined contained irregularities.

Tens of thousands of homeowners were victims of the "robo-signing" scandal in which employees of mortgage servicing firms generated bogus documents to speed foreclosures.

The Independent Foreclosure Review was launched last November by 14 major mortgage servicers and targeted borrowers whose homes were in foreclosure during 2009 and 2010.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a bank regulator, the Federal Reserve Board and the now-defunct Office of Thrift Supervision issued consent orders in April 2011 ordering the review.

Depending on the nature of errors, dollar amounts intended to remedy the problem 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.

Miller's struggle to understand the rights laid out in her review letter may not be unique.

A report released last week by the Government Accountability Office found that the letters' complex language, their omission of important information about remediation measures, and a failure to consider that some recipients speak or read little English could "impede some borrowers' ability to respond."

Miller, who is finishing work on her master's degree in business administration this year, finally called a housing counselor.

"It's like it's done for a lawyer to understand, or someone who's involved with mortgage loans," she said.

In addition to the overwhelming lack of response, more than 5 percent of letters were returned as undeliverable, a problem that Walter Walker, who has worked as a housing counselor for 20 years in Florida, said 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," he said. "We have the resources to follow up, and in some cases find these people, but to my knowledge, not one housing counselor was consulted."

A spokesman for the  Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which along with the Federal Reserve Board is overseeing the review process, said it was impossible to say what would be a successful number of respondents.

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 Web site were not tested with target audiences, and the letters were sent out only in English, even though 5.5 percent of the adult population in the United States reports they speak poor English or no English at all.

A Spanish-language advertising campaign was launched and translators for more than 200 languages are available at a toll-free number, but the form itself remains available only in English.

"By the time we were able to meet with the OCC and the Fed, a lot of things were too late," said Graciela Aponte, senior legislative analyst at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights organization.

She told regulators that the form was too complex and looked "like a scam," but was told "there were absolutely no edits that could be made to it."

Walker, the Florida housing counselor, 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 information.

"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 Web site more readable and analyzing trends in borrower responses and nonresponses.

The spokesman for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency 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 sending out 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."