Mortgage settlement sessions held across Missouri

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The state of Missouri is looking for victims of foreclosure abuse and homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages who may be eligible for some of the nearly $200 million received from a national settlement.

Attorney General Chris Koster's office held a series of public sessions in each of Missouri's 114 counties and the city of St. Louis this week to provide consumers with settlement details. More than 300 people attended a pair of sessions in Blue Springs and Kansas City on Wednesday, said Doug Ommen, chief counsel for Koster.

By contrast, just eight people showed up at a Friday afternoon forum in Columbia. But they shared similar stories of anger, frustration and fear of losing their homes — only now, they may have some legal and financial recourse.

"They have to treat you better than they did before," Ommen told the audience. "If they don't, there are some severe penalties."

Borrowers who lost homes through faulty foreclosures from 2008 through 2011 are eligible for direct payments of up to $2,000, depending on the number who enroll in the program. That accounts for $31 million of Missouri's $196 million payment from the nation's five largest private lenders: Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Ally Financial, which is also known as GMAC. The lenders will pay a total of $25 billion.

An additional $38 million will help homeowners refinance "underwater" mortgages on homes with market values less than the amount they still owe on their loans, provided borrowers are caught up on their mortgages and have interest rates higher than 5.25 percent. That could reduce monthly payments by at least $100.

Another $86.5 million will help reduce loan amounts for others whose homes are worth less than what they owe and have also fallen behind on payments. Eligibility for assistance will be determined with the help of a national settlement administrator by late summer, with payments and loan modifications expected as soon as next year but perhaps as late as 2015.

"The Missouri Attorney General's Office does not have control over how quickly the assistance begins," a fact sheet on the settlement notes. "However, we will work with Missouri consumers as they have questions, and will communicate with the banks to help move things as quickly as possible."

Missouri will use the remainder of its settlement, roughly $40 million, to plug holes in the state's budget and avoid deep spending cuts to higher education sought by lawmakers before the settlement was approved in February.

The settlement sets up state oversight of the private lenders, and also contains a pledge by the banks to improve customer service and reform a flawed process that led companies to approve foreclosures without verifying documents or by using fake signatures.

The assurances offered by Ommen were welcome news to Sarah Merrell, a 63-year-old federal worker who said she was forced to file for bankruptcy two years ago to save her Columbia home after her younger sister, with whom she lives, became ill.

Merrell said her requests for a loan modification from Chase were denied, even though her monthly mortgage payments exceed her salary by 33 percent. Her attorney hasn't had any luck either.

"They told me it was not a problem, that it's not a hardship," she said.

The state Attorney General's Office plans to soon hold additional public meetings, according to Ommen. Homeowners can register and get additional information by calling (855) 870-7676 or online at http://ago.mo.gov/mortgageSettlementInfo.htm

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