LAWFUEL – The Law News Network – Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the Attorneys General and banking regulators of 48 states today announced a $325 million agreement with the nation’s largest subprime mortgage lender to overhaul its existing sales, appraisal and closing practices.
Under the agreement, Ameriquest Mortgage Company will pay $295 million in restitution for injured consumers and $30 million to the states involved in the investigation. The settlement agreement was negotiated by a committee of five states, including: New York; Iowa; Illinois; California; and Washington.
Under the agreement, New York State residents will share in approximately $22 million in restitution. It is estimated that over 22,000 New York State residents may be eligible to participate in the restitution fund.
“Predatory lending results in substantial injury to our society’s most vulnerable consumers and undermines communities by stripping homeowner equity and hiking foreclosures,” Spitzer said.
“Aggressive enforcement action by the states sends a strong message that abusive and predatory lending practices will not be tolerated.”
The two-year investigation revealed that Ameriquest created a hyper-aggressive, high pressure sales culture that encouraged its sales personnel to engage in deceptive and fraudulent conduct, including:
• Charging consumers thousands of dollars in discount points that resulted in higher
commissions for sales personnel but failed to yield a lower interest rate for borrowers;
• Concealing the interest rate and loan costs during the application process;
• Sending inaccurate “good faith estimates”;
• Making misleading comparisons between borrowers’ existing loans and Ameriquest’s
• Falsifying loan documents to push through loans, including inflating borrowers’ incomes;
• Pressuring appraisers to inflate the values of borrowers’ homes;
• Closing loans before they were approved by the corporate office; and
• Failing to fund loans in a timely fashion.
Ameriquest primarily makes refinance loans to homeowners seeking to consolidate credit card and other debt and generate overall monthly savings. After refinancing with Ameriquest, however, consumers were often trapped in mortgages they could not afford, and were left with little or no equity in their homes.
The settlement agreement requires Ameriquest to:
• Provide the same interest rates and discount points for similarly situated consumers;
• Provide full written and oral disclosures regarding interest rates, discount points and
prepayment penalties, and provide important information regarding consumers’ pricing
• Overhaul its appraisal practices by prohibiting sales personnel from selecting,
contacting, or attempting to influence appraisers;
• Provide accurate good faith estimates;
• Refrain from soliciting borrowers for refinancing within two years of the original loan,
except under limited circumstances;
• Use independent loan closers; and
• Adopt policies to protect whistle-blowers and facilitate reporting of improper conduct.
The agreement also provides for the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee Ameriquest’s compliance with the settlement. The monitor will have broad authority to examine Ameriquest’s lending operations and will have access to Ameriquest documents and personnel.
Of the $295 million in restitution, $175 million will be distributed through a nationwide claims
process to eligible Ameriquest customers who obtained mortgages between January 1, 1999
and April 1, 2003. The amount of the restitution for each consumer will be based on a formula
developed by the settling states.
Another $120 million in restitution will be allocated to the states based on the percentage of
total dollar volume of Ameriquest loans held by consumers in each state, to be used at the
states’ discretion to provide restitution to victimized Ameriquest customers.
The settlement – which takes effect on March 15, 2006 upon the entry of judgment in the participating states – is the second-largest state or federal predatory lending settlement in history, after the $484 million agreement reached in 2002 between the states and Household Finance Company.
The investigation was conducted for the Attorney General by Assistant Attorneys General Mark Fleischer and Amy Schallop of the Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau.