On business: South Carolina joins crackdown against mortgage-servicing firm
Ocwen Financial Corp. isn’t a household name in South Carolina or most other states, at least not to anyone outside of the mortgage or foreclosure business.
But its profile is quickly rising.
While the pain from the last residential real estate crash has largely subsided, the hangover is just starting to intensify for the Florida-based company.
Ocwen is coming under siege for its alleged botched handling of bank accounts set up to pay property taxes and insurance for home-loan borrowers, allegations the company insists are inaccurate and unfounded.
The dispute came to a head a few weeks ago, when regulators in more than two dozen states — including South Carolina — filed a flurry of similarly worded legal actions to block Ocwen from taking on any new business within their borders.
“The orders are the culmination of several years of examinations and monitoring by multiple state regulatory agencies that revealed the company is mismanaging consumer mortgage escrow accounts,” the Washington, D.C.-based Conference of State Bank Supervisors said last week.
The company vowed to “vigorously” defend itself.
“Ocwen will not sign unfair and unjust consent orders that make impractical demands that no other market participant could rationally accept, and which would harm consumers,” it said.
The 25 state filings coincided with a parallel legal volley from federal regulators. In its lawsuit, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accused Ocwen of “years of widespread errors, shortcuts and runarounds” that cost some borrowers money and others their homes.
The bureau’s website shows almost 300 complaints against the company from South Carolina residents since 2014. Most of those are closed.
One of Ocwen’s primary businesses is mortgage servicing, meaning it collects monthly payments from borrowers and then disburses the cash as needed to mortgage lenders, taxing authorities and property insurers.
It deals in large part in higher-risk loans. And it has logged hundreds of foreclosure lawsuits with local courts, online case searches show.
South Carolina become involved in the crackdown as part of a committee that state regulators from around the country created to investigate Ocwen’s business practices. The probe focused on a roughly two-year period, starting in early 2013.
The Department of Consumer Affairs and the State Board of Financial Institutions filed their joint cease-and-desist order with the Administrative Law Court in Columbia on April 20. They cited 18 formal complaints against the company in South Carolina since 2014.
“The main concern we have is Ocwen’s failure to reconcile its escrow accounts,” said Carri Grube Lybarker, administrator of Consumer Affairs. In some cases, she added, the firm “was unable to show money going in was being credited” to the borrowers.
“We just want to make sure consumers’ money is going to what they’re paying for,” Lybarker said.
Isle of Palms attorney David Traywick is suing Ocwen over its loan-servicing practices. The case he’s been litigating cites most of the same allegations that the states and federal regulators have raised.
“They’re a little late to the party,” Traywick said last week. “Why now? The damage is done.”
The way he sees it, Ocwen fumbled the transfer of data between proprietary computer backbones as it acquired more loans to service, triggering bookkeeping and clerical errors that cascaded into bigger problems for borrowers.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also pointed to the company’s “deficient” technology in its 93-page lawsuit. The complaint included an excerpt of a 2014 internal communication between Ocwen’s CEO and a mortgage servicing executive, who called the platform an “absolute train wreck.”
“I know there’s no shot ... but if I could change systems tomorrow I would,” the unidentified official said. “I can’t tell you the number of hours I and others spend on basic servicing technology blocking and tackling. I’m not talking about differentiators here. I’m talking about getting system to stay online, escrow analysis to work, letters to print, etc.”
Most of the cease and desist orders are aimed at stopping Ocwen from servicing new loans until a legal resolution is reached.
The embattled company said it isn’t surrendering to the onslaught. It said that it has granted more than 735,000 loan modifications since 2008 and “has provided billions of dollars in principal forgiveness to homeowners at risk of foreclosure.”
It’s also challenging the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in a newly filed lawsuit.
In South Carolina, Ocwen has asked to appear before an Administrative Law Court judge in Columbia to contest the Palmetto State’s cease and desist order. A hearing has not been scheduled.
“However, we continue to seek an acceptable resolution to resolve all state concerns,” Ocwen spokesman John Lovallo said in a statement Friday.
Until then, the company can continue to service new mortgages in South Carolina. Ocwen did not say whether it would.