It may look like just another legal document, but for American consumers, one of the most powerful tools for protecting their interests is within the four corners of an FTC settlement order. Orders typically stop companies from engaging in the activities the FTC alleges are illegal, but they don’t end there. Orders also put provisions in place to change the way companies do business going forward. And as the FTC’s multi-million dollar settlement with Bank of America subsidiary BAC Home Loans Servicing shows, non-compliance can be costly.
The story starts with an earlier FTC law enforcement action against mortgage giant Countrywide, which was later acquired by Bank of America. That 2010 settlement required the company to pay a record $108 million to reimburse homeowners for deceptive practices related to mortgage servicing. According to the FTC, among other things, the company overcharged already cash-strapped consumers for services like property inspections, maintenance services, title searches, and foreclosure trustee services. An administrator working for the FTC has mailed 450,177 refund checks to people who were harmed by Countrywide’s practices.
But refunds were just part of the settlement story. The order also prohibited BAC Home Loans from charging more than a reasonable fee for default-related services, and it required the company to clearly disclose default-related fees on its website. The FTC alleges that despite the 2010 settlement, the Bank of America subsidiary charged many homeowners fees for default-related services that were illegal or not authorized under their loan documents. According to the FTC, the company also charged fees for title services that were much higher than the maximum $500 disclosed on the company’s site. To resolve these new allegations, BAC Home Loans will pay an $8 million judgment. That’s on top of $28 million in allegedly improper fees it has already refunded. To satisfy the $8 million judgment, BAC Home Loans has to prove they have reversed or refunded all of the improperly assessed fees — or must reverse or refund the charges within 180 days.
The company agreed to the FTC settlement in conjunction with a $25 billion Global Civil Settlement that Bank of America and four other U.S. banks reached with the Department of Justice and state attorneys general to resolve allegations of illegal foreclosure practices. (Find out more about this historic action at nationalmortgagesettlement.com.)
Two compliance messages for companies: First, challenging illegal practices aimed at people in financial distress remains a top FTC priority. When it comes to protecting those consumers, businesses need to know that the FTC means business. Second, how seriously does the Commission take order enforcement? Big-time seriously.
What do homeowners need to know? Law enforcers have your back. Get more info about the FTC’s refund program at ftc.gov/countrywide. Visit stopfraud.gov to find out what the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force — of which the FTC is a member — is doing to protect consumers.