New Jersey Attorney General Paula T. Dow has announced that Wells Fargo Home Mortgage has agreed to provide New Jersey consumers with nearly $67 million in loan modifications and pay the state $3.98 million to resolve allegations that companies it acquired—Wachovia Corporation, Golden West and World Savings—deceptively marketed adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) loans. Acquired in 2008 by Wells Fargo, the companies sold thousands of so-called “Pick-a-Payment” ARMs in New Jersey by touting the mortgages’ low monthly payment options. However, the companies failed to warn borrowers that choosing the minimum-payment option could lead to a treadmill of debt. Specifically, a borrower’s “low” monthly payment option often failed to cover the interest on his or her loan. This resulted in an increase in the loan’s principal balance, causing the monthly payment to spike well beyond what the consumer expected to pay. Some borrowers became delinquent and faced the prospect of foreclosure. Others ultimately lost their homes. “This case is part of our on-going effort to protect New Jersey consumers, and to assist homeowners who may have fallen victim to misleading or exploitative lending practices,” said Attorney General Dow. “In many cases, those who seek out these ‘minimum payment’ option mortgages are the very people who have the most limited financial resources. Signing them up for loan terms that sound attractive without warning them of the potential financial pitfalls is wrong, and we intend to hold companies that engage in such conduct accountable.” New Jersey homeowners accounted for about five percent of the “Pick-a-Payment” loans acquired by Wells Fargo as part of its acquisitions of Wachovia, Golden West and World Savings in 2008. In 2009, the state opened an investigation into whether Wells Fargo and/or the three predecessor companies had violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by failing to explain to borrowers how “Pick-a-Payment” worked. The agreement announced resolves the matter. Under terms of the settlement, Wells Fargo will provide across-the-board forgiveness of accrued interest and late fees for eligible delinquent borrowers who live in the homes on which they took out “Pick-a-Payment” mortgages. Starting on Dec. 18, 2010, the company also will provide loan modification terms that enable affordable payments and reduce principal for some consumers. Modified loan terms will vary according to the circumstances of the borrower, but can include principal forgiveness, loan extension, interest rate reduction, and principal forbearance (which gives the borrower additional time to pay off the loan principal). Borrowers who remain current on their modified payments over three years will earn additional principal forgiveness. Borrowers who qualify may also convert into a fixed rate loan. All modification fees and pre-payment penalties will be waived. The modification program will extend until June 30, 2013. Under Wells Fargo’s projections, which include certain modifications completed during negotiations, the settlement will result in modification of mortgage loans for upwards of 900 eligible New Jersey consumers. The value of those loan modifications will total close to $67 million. Under the settlement, Wells Fargo also has agreed to make a number of servicing commitments to its “Pick-A-Payment” borrowers, including: ►Ensuring adequately staffed help lines to serve consumers, including Spanish-speaking consumers. ►Providing a single, primary point of contact to assist borrowers seeking modifications under this assurance. ►Making decisions on modifications within 30 calendar days of receiving a complete application. ►Establishing a formal “second look” or appeal process for borrowers who are turned down for a modification. ►More clearly communicating with borrowers to avoid confusion during this process. “This settlement is an excellent example of the state using its authority to help New Jersey consumers who may have been financially harmed, or placed in jeopardy of losing their homes, by questionable business practices,” said Division of Law Director Robert M. Hanna. “The agreement provides real relief by forgiving principal as part of a mortgage modification program that is designed to place homeowners in sustainable mortgages, and to keep them in their homes,” said Acting Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs Thomas R. Calcagni. In addition to the loan modifications, Wells Fargo will pay the state $3.98 million. Of that amount, up to $2 million will be distributed as restitution to New Jersey consumers who had a “Pick-a-Payment” mortgage, became delinquent and were forced to leave their homes due to foreclosure or short sale between Jan. 2, 2005-Dec. 18, 2010. The remaining $1.98 million will be used to support the state’s on-going efforts to combat mortgage fraud and loan modification fraud, and to prevent foreclosures. During its investigation, New Jersey conducted direct interviews with homeowners who complained about the “Pick-a-Payment” mortgages, and surveyed other consumers by mail. Most borrowers said they did not understand what they’d signed up for, and many were dissatisfied after their loans underwent “negative amortization” (where the monthly payment fails to cover the interest on the loan, leading to an increase in the principal balance and, ultimately, greater debt.) New Jersey was a lead state within a multi-state group that investigated Wells Fargo and the “Pick-a-Payment” mortgages, and that ultimately reached settlement with the company. New Jersey consumers who believe they qualify for the restitution program should submit their contact information to the Division of Consumer Affairs’ Web site at www.state.nj.us/lps/ca/wellsfargo. The Division of Law’s Affirmative Litigation Section investigated the Wells Fargo matter in cooperation with the Division of Consumer Affairs. Deputy Attorney General Janine Matton led the investigation in consultation with Deputy Attorney General Megan Lewis, the Section Chief, and Deputy Attorney General Samuel Cornish. From the Division of Consumer Affairs, the investigation was handled by Supervising Investigator Jennifer Micco and Investigator Joseph Iasso. Assistant Attorney General James Savage provided assistance and support to the investigation. Attorney General Dow said the state continues to be concerned about deceptive business practices in the mortgage and foreclosure remediation industries. She explained that the Division of Consumer Affairs is aggressively pursuing these matters whenever New Jersey borrowers are believed to have been victimized by unscrupulous lending, foreclosure or foreclosure remediation practices. For more information, visit www.nj.gov/oag/.
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