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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2010

Fighting wrongful foreclosure uphill battle

Christopher Marconi was in the shower when he heard banging on his door. By the time he grabbed a towel and hustled to his front step, a U.S. marshal's sedan was peeling out of his driveway. Nailed to the front door was a foreclosure summons from Wells Fargo, naming him as a defendant. But the notice was for a house Mr. Marconi had never seen -- on a mortgage he never had.

Tom Williams was in his kitchen opening the mail when he unsealed a letter from GMAC. It informed him that the bank would confiscate his house unless he immediately paid off his mortgage balance of $276,000. But Mr. Williams had never missed a mortgage payment. And his loan wasn't due to mature until 2032.

Warren Nyerges opened his front door and found a scraggly-haired summons server standing on his stoop. He plopped a foreclosure notice from Bank of America into Mr. Nyerges hands. But he had paid for his house in cash, and he'd never had a checking account, much less a mortgage, with Bank of America.

By now, stories of bank robo-signers powering through hundreds of foreclosure affidavits a day without verifying a single fact have become common. But most of those involved homeowners who had stopped paying their mortgages. Now, foreclosure nightmare are descending on a new species of homeowner.

These homeowners paid their mortgages or loan modifications on time. Some even paid off their loans.

Worse, those on the receiving end of a bad foreclosure claim tell similar stories of getting bounced from one bank official to the next with no resolution while the foreclosure process proceeded.

Many resorted to paying a lawyer, even after presenting documentation. They say they have to sue not only to stop the wrongful foreclosure but also to win back their costs.

No official statistics on these homeowners are available, but lawyers, real estate agents, and consumer advocates say their ranks are growing.

During foreclosure hearings on Capitol Hill last month, senator after senator scolded banks about wrongful foreclosures. They said their offices were deluged with complaints from people who had done everything right but were being treated by banks as if they had done everything wrong. And the Florida attorney general's office has made the issue part of its foreclosure investigation.

Ira Rheingold, a lawyer and executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, said of the situation, "This is the worst I've ever seen it."

Diane Thompson, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center, has defended hundreds of foreclosure cases. "In virtually every case, I believe the homeowner was not in default when you looked at the surrounding facts. It is a widespread problem throughout the country."

Homeowners in Florida, Nevada, Texas, and Pennsylvania have filed lawsuits alleging that they were victims of mistaken foreclosure. In many cases, the bank went so far as to haul away belongings and change the locks.

One such suit was filed in March by Pennsylvania home- owner Angela Iannelli. She was up to date on her payments when, she said, she arrived home in October, 2009, to find that Bank of America had ransacked her belongings, cut off her utilities, poured anti-freeze down her drains, padlocked her doors, and confiscated her pet parrot. It took her six weeks to get the bank to clean up the house.

Ms. Iannelli's lawyer said the parties are in the process of "mutually resolving the issues."Bank of America did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Texas homeowners Maria and Jose Perez filed suit in October after Bank of America sent them a notice that their house was slated for a foreclosure sale Nov. 2. They say they are current on their mortgage payment and they have no loan with Bank of America. A trial is set for June 13.

In Kentucky and California, class-action lawsuits have been filed against major lenders on behalf of home- owners in loan modification programs who claim they've made all their payments but were foreclosed on anyway.

Banks say they are reviewing their procedures, but what emerges from all of this, is that once someone is on a foreclosure assembly line, it's nearly impossible to get off.



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