By Michelle Conlin and Peter Rudegeair
(Reuters) - Six former Bank of America Corp employees have alleged that the bank deliberately denied eligible home owners loan modifications and lied to them about the status of their mortgage payments and documents.
The bank allegedly used these tactics to shepherd homeowners into foreclosure, as well as in-house loan modifications. Both yielded the bank more profits than the government-sponsored Home Affordable Modification Program, according to documents recently filed as part of a lawsuit in Massachusetts federal court.
The former employees, who worked at Bank of America centers throughout the United States, said the bank rewarded customer service representatives who foreclosed on homes with cash bonuses and gift cards to retail stores such as Target Corp and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc .
For example, an employee who placed 10 or more accounts into foreclosure a month could get a $500 bonus. At the same time, the bank punished those who did not make the numbers or objected to its tactics with discipline, including firing.
About twice a month, the bank cleaned out its HAMP backlog in an operation called "blitz," where it declined thousands of loan modification requests just because the documents were more than 60 months old, the court documents say.
The testimony from the former employees also alleges the bank falsified information it gave the government, saying it had given out HAMP loan modifications when it had not.
Rick Simon, a Bank of America Home Loans spokesman, said the bank had successfully completed more modifications than any other servicer under HAMP.
"We continue to demonstrate our commitment to assisting customers who are at risk of foreclosure and, at best, these attorneys are painting a false picture of the bank's practices and the dedication of our employees," Simon said in a email, adding the declarations were "rife with factual inaccuracies."
Borrowers filed the civil case against Bank of America in 2010 and are now seeking class certification. The affidavits, dated June 7, are the latest accusations over the mishandling of mortgage modifications by some top U.S. banks.
Mortgage problems have dogged Bank of America since its disastrous purchase of Countrywide Financial in 2008. The bank paid $42 billion to settle credit crisis and mortgage-related litigation between 2010 and 2012, according to SNL Financial.
Bank of America and four other banks reached a $25 billion landmark settlement with regulators in 2012, following a scandal in late 2010 when it was revealed employees "robo signed" documents without verifying them as is required by law.
But problems have persisted. Since 2012, more than 18,000 homeowners have filed complaints about Bank of America with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a new agency created to help protect consumers. Recently, the attorney generals of New York and Florida accused Bank of America of violating the terms of last year's settlement.
The government created HAMP in 2009 in response to the foreclosure epidemic and to encourage banks to give homeowners loan modifications, allowing some borrowers to stay in their homes.
The court documents paint a picture of customer service operations where managers roamed the floor with headsets, able to listen into any call without warning. Service representatives were told to lie to homeowners, telling them their paperwork and payments had not been received, when in reality they had.
"This is exactly what's been happening to homeowners for years," said Danielle Kelley, a foreclosure defense lawyer in Florida. "No matter how many times they send in their paperwork, or how often they make their payments, they simply can't get loan modifications. They wind up in foreclosure instead."
The former employees said they were told to falsify electronic records and string homeowners along in foreclosure as long as possible. The problem was exacerbated because the bank did not have enough employees handling modifications, adding to the backlog of cases purged during the "blitz" operations.
Once a HAMP application was delayed or rejected, Bank of America would offer an in-house alternative, charging as high as 5 percent when the loan could have been modified for 2 percent under HAMP, according to an affidavit by William Wilson, who worked at the bank's Charlotte, North Carolina office.
Wilson, who was a case management team manager, said he told his supervisors the practices were "ridiculous" and "immoral." He said he was fired in August 2012.
Bank of America said it was not at liberty to discuss personnel matters.
(Reporting By Michelle Conlin and Peter Rudegeair in New York; Editing by Paritosh Bansal)