Home Economics: Banks making focused efforts to keep customers from mortgage foreclosure

If now were then, maybe Rady Sin and Saron Saom of Philadelphia wouldn't have spent the last few years as mortgage borrowers in trouble, and maybe they wouldn't have fallen prey to a scammer offering help at a high price and delivering nothing.

When the city temporarily relocated their food cart from 30th and Market Streets to Chestnut Street and business fell off dramatically, the Cambodian couple began falling behind on their mortgage payments to Bank of America.

"I talked and gave [Bank of America] everything they asked for two or three times, but nothing happened," Sin said.

When he received a letter from a mortgage-rescue outfit saying it could help save his house by letting him cut his $1,300-a-month mortgage payment to $600, Sin agreed to pay $300 to $400 at a time, a total of $3,000, "everything I had."

After a foreclosure notice arrived from Bank of America and Sin realized that he had been scammed, he finally turned for help to Tony Abato, a counselor at the Philadelphia Unemployment Project.

At the root of the problem: Bank of America didn't seem to have a customer-service representative on board who, as Abato put it, understood "their language or had any cultural experience" - a fact that led the couple right into the hands of the scam artist.

But that was then. Now, Sin and Saom would have found Bank of America more accommodating, something Abato and other housing counselors on the front lines in the foreclosure-prevention battle acknowledge.

"Of course, there are difficult situations," Abato said, "but I do believe that some of the predatory-lending practices are still echoing through the loss-mitigation side of the business."

That was evident Tuesday afternoon, as Bank of America's Latasha McGill spent a 20-minute workshop trying to get the five homeowners in her audience at the Philadelphia Marriott up to speed on everything they needed to know to avert foreclosure.

The workshop was the second step, after registration, for these and more than 300 of the 19,000 customers within a 75-mile area whom the mortgage servicer had invited to three days of one-on-one meetings to try to solve their mortgage problems so they could stay in their homes.

It was not the first time that Bank of America brought its show to town. In July alone, it modified 1,500 mortgages, with a total of 20,000 during 12 previous sessions since 2009.

Nor is Bank of America the only one of the Big Five mortgage servicers to do so. In August, a two-day Wells Fargo event at the Convention Center drew 570 registrants, according to spokeswoman Barbara Nate.

The impetus for these outreach efforts, in large part, is the agreement the five major servicers signed in February with 49 state attorneys general to end an investigation into questionable processing practices in states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where the courts handle foreclosures.

Besides a $25 billion payment shared by the states and customers affected by the "robo-signing" practices, the terms of the settlement mandate that a "single-point of contact" system be established by the servicers so that borrowers deal with the same customer-service representative from start to finish.

The single-point-of-contact concept, and the fact that Bank of America has two customer-service centers in the Philadelphia region - one in North Wales, the other in Pennsauken - were repeatedly emphasized by bank officials during the three-day session.

Also stressed, as McGill put it: "Foreclosure is the last resort."

Lenders' attempts to offer alternatives to foreclosures have not gone unnoticed. RealtyTrac, the Irvine, Calif.-based company that monitors distressed properties, reported Thursday that foreclosure filings both in September and in the third quarter were the lowest since 2007.

At the Marriott on Tuesday, Bank of America spared no effort to keep meetings with individual customers personal and private. During the workshops, questions were discouraged, with bank officials preferring that they be asked during one-on-one sessions between customers and service representatives.

"We are trying to protect the customers' privacy," explained Tamika Eubanks, vice president of mortgage outreach for Bank of America, adding that questions are often so specific to the borrower asking them "that it defeats the purpose" of the one-on-one meetings.

An answer might not apply to everyone's situation, she said.

That didn't mean that customers' comments during the workshops were not informative.

Afterward, registered borrowers were given a choice: They could go directly to a room where they could begin a one-on-one with a Bank of America customer-service representative, or they could talk first with a HUD-certified mortgage counselor.

Patricia Hasson, president of Clarifi, the Philadelphia financial and credit-counseling agency, said her counselors were on site all the three days.

"We talk with [borrowers] about their options and about budget modification," Hasson said. "People who come to us are trying to navigate a difficult situation. There still is a lot of confusion about what it all means."

Once a one-on-one session was concluded, it was possible that a borrower could have a decision before going home.

"About 40 percent of the cases are decided on site" if all the paperwork is in order, Bank of America's Eubanks said.

Sin said that he is back at 30th and Market Streets now, and that business for the Chinese food he serves up every day "is much better now." But he is still slogging through the process of saving his house.

"I'm trying to do better," he said, "but it takes a long time."


Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2462, aheavens@phillynews.com or @alheavens at Twitter.