"For seven years you think you're good to go, that you've put this behind you," said Huthsing, who cleared her savings out of the bank and stowed the money in a safe to protect it from getting seized. "Then wham, you get slapped to the floor again."
Bankruptcy is one way out for consumers in this rub. But it has serious drawbacks: it can trash a consumer's credit report for up to ten years, making it difficult to get credit cards, car loans or home financing. Oftentimes, borrowers will instead go on a repayment plan or simply settle the suits—without questioning the filings or hiring a lawyer—in exchange for paying a lower amount.
Though court officials and attorneys in foreclosure-ravaged regions like Florida, Ohio and Illinois all say the cases are surging, no one keeps official tabs on the number nationally. "Statistically, this is a real difficult task to get a handle on," said Geoff Walsh, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.
Officials in individual counties say that the cases, while virtually zero a year or two ago, now number in the hundreds in each county. Thirty-eight states, along with the District of Columbia, allow financial institutions recourse to claw back these funds.
"I've definitely noticed a huge uptick," said Cook County, Illinois homeowner attorney Sandra Emerson. "They didn't include language in court motions to pursue these. Now, they do."
Three of the biggest mortgage lenders, Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo, all say that they typically don't pursue deficiency judgments, though they reserve the right to do so. "We may pursue them on a case-by-case basis looking at a variety of factors, including investor and mortgage insurer requirements, the financial status of the borrower and the type of hardship," said Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda. The banks would not comment on why they avoid deficiency judgments.
Perhaps the most aggressive among the debt pursuers is Fannie Mae. Of the 595,128 foreclosures Fannie Mae was involved in—either through owning or guaranteeing the loans—from January 2010 through June 2012, it referred 293,134 to debt collectors for possible pursuit of deficiency judgments, according to a 2013 report by the Inspector General for the agency's regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
It is unclear how many of the loans that get sent to debt collectors actually get deficiency judgments, but the IG urged the FHFA to direct Fannie Mae, along with Freddie Mac, to pursue more of them from the people who could repay them.
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It appears as if Fannie Mae is doing just that. In Florida alone in the past year, for example, at least 10,000 lawsuits have been filed—representing hundreds of millions of dollars of payments, according to Jacksonville, Florida-based attorney Chip Parker.
Parker is about to file a class action lawsuit against the Dallas-based debt collection company, Dyck O'Neal, which is working to recoup the money on behalf of Fannie Mae. The class action will allege that Dyck O'Neal violated fair debt collection practices by suing people in the state of Florida who actually lived out of state. Dyck O'Neal declined to comment.
In Lee County, Florida, for example, Dyck O'Neal only filed four foreclosure-related deficiency judgment cases last year. So far this year, it has filed 360 in the county, which has more than 650,000 residents and includes Ft. Myers. The insurer the Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Company has also filed about 1,000 cases this past year in Florida alone.
Andrew Wilson, a spokesman for Fannie Mae, said the finance giant is focusing on "strategic defaulters:" those who could have paid their mortgages but did not. Fannie Mae analyzes borrowers' ability to repay based on their open credit lines, assets, income, expenses, credit history, mortgages and properties, according to the 2013 IG report. "Fannie Mae and the taxpayers suffered a loss. We're focusing on people who had the ability to make a payment but decided not to do so," said Wilson.
Freddie Mac spokesman Brad German said the decision to pursue deficiency judgments for any particular loan is made on a "case-by-case basis."