When a military service member is on active duty -- anywhere from Afghanistan to Ft. Benning, Ga. -- a number of regulations protect the soldier in the event that anything goes wrong in a family's personal financial life, including "rental agreements, security deposits, prepaid rent, eviction, installment contracts, credit card interest rates, mortgage interest rates, mortgage foreclosure, civil judicial proceedings, automobile leases, life insurance, health insurance and income tax payments," according to the Department of Justice's web site.
For 178 of these active duty service members, the key breakdown occurred in mortgage foreclosures. The DOJ said Thursday that it had simultaneously filed and settled lawsuits against Bank of America and Morgan Stanley, setting aside $22 million to compensate the soldiers whose homes were improperly foreclosed on.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act states that active duty soldiers may only be foreclosed upon in very extreme cases and must receive court orders before completing the process. The two mortgage servicers, Countrywide Home Loans Servicing (which, after a number of regulatory black eyes, was renamed by BofA) and Saxon Mortgage Services were both accused of knowingly and repeatedly violating the act. This was the largest amount ever recovered for such violations.The soldiers who were victims of the violations were a sympathetic lot; several had been injured in the line of duty or suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. One was having regular nightmares. Another was paralyzed.
It doesn't take war wounds or night terrors to feel sympathy for a family who's about to lose its home. And for military families, the bill-juggling and upkeep of the family finances can be far more difficult than for most other families. Plagued by worries, and not just about the practical stuff involved with losing a home -- having to move suddenly, ruining credit, community shame -- soldiers are often concerned about having their service record marred or complicating security clearances. Enormous debts or a history of poor financial decisions can affect whether or not a soldier can be deployed to war zones or be admitted into certain military fields.
When the situation is complicated by the result of poor communication or inequitable information about a family's finances, the struggles are even more concerning. Evidence shows that many mortgage servicers conducted a widespread, slam-bam-no-thank-you-ma'am foreclosure operation over the past half-decade (the first case of foreclosure in the DOJ settlement occurred in 2005).
How bad was it? Employees barely glanced at documentation before signing it. Loans were juggled from servicer to servicer during the foreclosure process. Phone calls from homeowners were never returned. Promises were made and then forgotten or ignored. Paperwork was left on piles on desks. The horror stories are endless.
In 2010 alone, there were 2.9 million properties to which foreclosure notices were sent and 1 million properties that were repossessed by the bank. These 178 service members are just a drop in the bucket of sorrowful American homeowners (and former homeowners). In the grand scheme of things, it's a small yet flagrantly dishonorable part of one of America's biggest stains on its moral fabric.
The spot, I think, will take a lot more rubbing to get out.
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