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Who Should Have Been Regulating Mortgage Servicers?

The unfolding foreclosure fraud crisis centers on mortgage servicers, companies that collect and organize mortgage payments on behalf of banks. (Many are actually subsidiaries of big financial-service companies, like J.P. Morgan Chase.) When a homeowner misses payments, the servicers are meant to carefully review their financial statements and to notify them before moving on with foreclosure.

But regulations on servicers are thin. Servicers can, Andy Kroll noted earlier this year, change their charges and fees without notifying homeowners in advance. The companies routinely mess up families’ paperwork. And often they benefit from the confusion — tacking late-payment or wrong-payment fees onto customers’ bills.

Servicers have existed for decades, but have remained obscure — to the press, to the public and even to the regulators meant to be overseeing them. The federal regulators in charge of mortgage servicers — including the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Trade Commission, though each in a limited capacity — generally have not taken action when they break laws. In fact, though the Housing and Urban Development Department receives thousands of complaints a year, Washington hardly ever reacts. Instead, state governments are responsible for regulation. And that means a patchwork quilt of responses. Some states, like Ohio, go after the companies aggressively. Others don’t.

The good news is that this will soon change. Already, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau technically has the mandate to oversee and write rules for mortgage servicers, though it is not staffed or set up yet. If the foreclosure fraud crisis is big enough, the new Office of Financial Research and Financial Stability Oversight Council might become involved. And last week, Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) said of Congress, “We now have resolution authority that we can take out for a spin.”

Plus, Congress and the White House are now paying attention. Though the administration is using kid gloves, not pushing for new solutions or calling for a national moratorium on foreclosures, the Hill is more active. Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) have called for hearings when Congress comes back into session, after the November elections. Other offices I spoke with, including Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio), said they are considering new legislation or hearings to look into the fraud crisis. In the meantime, about 40 state attorneys general are investigating or initiating cases related to the crisis.

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