It usually happens when homeowners are at work or out of town.
In Clawson, Mich., Nancy Cox returned home to find her possessions in the front yard, smashed with a sledgehammer, and a chalk drawing of a clown face on her garage with the tagline, "another job well done."
For Kenneth and Margaret Karpa in Pittsburgh, china and photos of their daughter were damaged. Missing belongings included a coin collection and the family cat.
In Kansas City, Allen Danforth discovered his elderly parents' furnishings -- tables, chairs, family heirlooms -- gone.
These homeowners allege in separate lawsuits that a contractor hired by a major bank to preserve abandoned properties against damage, mistakenly entered their homes while they were still occupied. In most cases, it appears that the contractor, known as a property inspector or property preserver, broke in after ignoring obvious signs of occupation: lights turned on, grass mowed and homes fully furnished.
"They need to be completely damn sure that the property is vacant," said Richard Fersch, the sergeant in charge of foreclosures in the Allegheny County, Pa., Sheriff's Office.
Fersch fields about one complaint a week from homeowners who return home to discover new locks on their doors. "But for some reason when these contractors ride by residences and don't see anyone home, they just jump the gun and change the locks. They even lock pets inside."
A review of court records by The Huffington Post turned up more than 50 homeowner lawsuits against banks and the two largest property management contractors in the U.S., Safeguard Properties and Lender Processing Services, stemming from break-ins of occupied homes. The allegations follow five years of generally woeful management of the foreclosure industry by all involved, as the inspector general for the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is raising red flags about the lack of contractor oversight by the government-backed mortgage giants.
A June report by the inspector general cited deficiencies "in key [foreclosed home] contractor management controls" at Fannie and Freddie, which own or guarantee more than half of all home loans in the United States. Kristine Belisle, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, said she could not comment on whether the potential misconduct described in the report includes instances of wrongful contractor break-ins.
Diane Fusco, a Safeguard spokeswoman, said her company does "everything we can do to minimize" break-ins of occupied homes and that these incidents are "uncommon."
It isn't clear how often contractors are breaking into lived-in homes, but consumer lawyers say these legal complaints represent just a small sample of what is happening in communities across the country, as overzealous contractors whose earnings are pegged to the amount of work they do on a home are entering occupied houses, slapping new locks on doors and sometimes walking away with family possessions.
"If you are 45 days late on your mortgage payments, the bank can send out thugs to do a property inspection and break into your home," said Matthew Weidner, a Sarasota, Fla., lawyer representing homeowners in several similar cases. "People need to understand how dangerous this is. Someone is going to get [accidentally] shot."
Many of the problems with property inspections appear to stem from a lack of oversight and accountability. There are typically four layers of control between companies that own the loans, and the local contractors who actually do the work. Homeowners in recent years have complained that banks wrongfully charged them for unnecessary inspections, including one example from New Orleans where a bank billed a homeowner for an inspection supposedly conducted while her parish was under a mandatory evacuation order.
Homeowners in neighborhoods stricken by foreclosures have also complained that banks aren't maintaining abandoned homes, especially those in largely abandoned neighborhoods.
Typically, a bank that services or collects the payments on a home loan will send an electronic notice to an independent contractor when a borrower is in default. The contracting company, in turn, will ask a local subcontractor in its network to conduct a "drive-by inspection." Abandoned homes are then supposed to be secured against the elements, vandalism or other types of damage.
Most of the lawsuits reviewed by HuffPost involve Safeguard, a Cleveland-based company that inspects 1.5 million homes each month. JPMorgan Chase, which did not respond to a request for comment, was the bank most often named in the lawsuits.
A memo written in 2011 by Robert Klein, the chairman of Safeguard, instructs inspectors and contractors to "use common sense" when determining occupancy status. "Look for uncollected mail, overgrown vegetation, or other signs of neglect that suggest no one has recently been to the property. Next, check the status of utilities to see whether power, gas and water are active. Finally, speak with neighbors and ask whether they can confirm the occupancy or vacancy of the property."
Klein's memo also says that the company was recently notified of several complaints having to do with securing occupied properties. Such errors, he wrote, can lead to lawsuits that "may require costly settlements, for the simple fact that unauthorized entry into an occupied property makes Safeguard's position difficult to defend."
Fusco said her company provides a vital community service "protecting neighborhoods." She declined to comment on pending litigation, but said mistakes do occasionally happen. "It is not a perfect science," she said.
The decision about whether to enter a private home is up to a local contractor. That disturbs Pamela Campbell, a circuit court judge for Pinellas and Pasco counties in Florida. Campbell said banks should have to obtain a court order before one of their contractors can enter a home.
"There should be due process," Campbell said. "When people borrow money to buy a house, they don't anticipate that someone may one day drive by their home and make a determination on their own about whether it is vacant or not, and then possibly change their locks and go through their stuff. That is a scary proposition to me."
Many homeowner lawsuits include allegations that in addition to "securing" their home, which means replacing locks and sometimes "winterizing" it against the elements, contractors also stole their belongings.
While Celeste Butler's father was dying in the hospital, contractors working for Safeguard "looted and ransacked the house stealing numerous family possessions and heirlooms," a lawsuit filed by Butler in King County Superior Court in Seattle claims.
Chris Davis, a Seattle attorney representing Butler, said that his client's father should never have been considered in default on the loan in the first place -- that there was a mix-up with the automatic withdrawal set up to pay the mortgage to JPMorgan Chase every month.
Allen Danforth and his Kansas City family were even more shocked to discover that Safeguard, hired by JPMorgan Chase, removed their possessions, according to their lawyer, Tony Stein. That's because they had just recently purchased the home at a short sale -- and they didn't even have a mortgage with the bank.
Christopher Steeves and his wife returned to the Punta Gorda, Fla., house they were renting while visiting from Canada to discover a laptop computer, iPod and six bottles of wine missing, according to a lawsuit filed in Florida circuit court by the homeowner, who claims she had to reimburse half of the rental cost. A police report said the contractor, who worked for First Property Preservation, a Sarasota company, denied taking the belongings and also denied opening the refrigerator and taking a beer, which was found open on the counter with his fingerprints on the can.
Consumer lawyers said that even if a contractor doesn't remove anything, breaking into a private home is enough to terrify and intimidate homeowners already worn down from battling their bank over a looming foreclosure.
Nancy Jacobini was in her Orlando home on a cloudy afternoon in September 2010 when she heard someone rattling the handle of her front door. "I heard aggressiveness at the door. I heard the chain being chopped off," she recalled. "I grabbed my cell phone and went into the bathroom, and called 911."
She didn't come out until three sheriff's deputies standing in her living room told her it was safe, she said. Jacobini moved the biggest piece of furniture in her living room, a 7-foot console and coat rack, in front of the door for extra security.
In April 2011, it happened again. "I hear someone wrestling with the door," Jacobini said. "All of a sudden there is a boom and it opens. I scream. I see the console moving. A big guy with dark hair pushes into the room."
At that point, Jacobini was making payments on a trial loan modification to JPMorgan Chase, and had filed a lawsuit against the bank in Orlando federal district court based on the earlier break-in. She didn't realize, she said, that the lock the first worker put on her door could be opened by other preservation workers working for the same company, a fact pointed out to her when she struck up a conversation with a contractor working next door.
Jacobini was shocked, she said, when the worker strolled over to her house and was able to open the lock on her front door with his key.
"You need to get a new lock," he said.
Correction: An earlier front-page headline on this story said that regulators were pursuing a criminal investigation of the major mortgage players. Regulators are raising red flags about these practices but have not yet taken formal action.
Columbine Shooting Survivor Fighting Foreclosure With Occupy LA's Help
Richard Castaldo survived the shooting at Columbine High School 13 years ago and now he is fighting to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/27/richard-castaldo-columbine-foreclosure-occupy-la_n_2198146.html?utm_hp_ref=business" target="_hplink">rescue his home from foreclosure</a>. The people of Occupy Los Angeles are helping Castaldo and others like him to save their homes.
USDA Forecloses On 78-Year-Old Cancer Patient
The USDA foreclosed on 78-year-old Texas resident Alicia Ramirez, reportedly <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/06/alicia-ramirez-cancer-eviction_n_1747933.html?utm_hp_ref=business" target="_hplink">after she was diagnosed with cancer.</a> While the USDA has thus far allowed Ramirez to remain in her home, a court order evicting the senior citizen could be issued at any time.
Foreclosure Victims Lose Belongings After Free Yard Sale Goes Wrong
The Vercher family of Woodstock, Georgia, offered to give away a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/25/vercher-family-woodstock-craigslist-foreclosed_n_2017738.html?1351188857" target="_hplink">number of household items in a Craigslist ad</a> after their house was foreclosed on. Instead, they ended up losing nearly all of their belongings when people began taking items from inside the house.
Wells Fargo Offers Cancer Patient 'Assistance' Then Forecloses
Terminal breast cancer patient Cindi Davis could no longer keep up with her mortgage payments due to the cost of her medical bills. Faced with media scrutiny, her lender <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/14/wells-fargo-forecloses-cancer-patient-cindi-davis_n_1883956.html?1347635836" target="_hplink">Wells Fargo told a local radio station it was seeking "assistance"</a> for Davis just weeks before setting the date to auction her home for December 19th, 2012.
Coca-Cola Heirs Lose $37.5 Million To Foreclosure
Descendants of Coca-Cola founder Asa Candler have been hit hard by the housing bust with their <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/17/candler-family-foreclosure-losses_n_1890911.html?1347906436" target="_hplink">real estate development company losing $37.5 million to foreclosure since the Great Recession began</a>. (Pictured: the former mansion of Coca-Cola heir Asa Griggs "Buddy" Candler, Jr.)
Mom Evicted On Mother's Day
After she and her husband were allegedly duped into a bad loan, California mom Sheri Prizant faced the possibility of being evicted from her home on Mother's Day, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/11/sheri-prizant-eviction-mothers-day_n_1507681.html?1336741860" target="_hplink">MSNBC</a> reports.
CT Family Never Missed A Payment
Shock Baitch and his wife Lisa of Connecticut <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/30/bank-of-america-foreclosure_n_802861.html" target="_hplink">were threatened with foreclosure by Bank of America</a> after never missing a payment. BofA mistakenly told credit agencies they were seeking a loan modification. "Now I am literally and financially paying for it," Baitch told <a href="http://ctwatchdog.com/finance/bank-of-americas-christmas-present-foreclose-even-though-not-a-payment-missed" target="_hplink">CTWatchdog.com</a>.
Man Gets Free Home After Lender Shutdown
Facing foreclosure, Perry Laspina of Jacksonville, Florida ended up with a home practically for free after his mortgage lender was shut down by parent company Wells Fargo, <a href="http://realestate.aol.com/blog/2011/04/14/foreclosure-foul-up-wins-man-a-free-home/" target="_hplink">AOL Real Estate reports</a>. Laspina got the home "because of the significant decreased value of the property," a bank spokesman said.
BofA Forecloses On Building With Own Branch Office
In Boynton Beach, Florida, Bank of America filed a foreclosure lawsuit against the owner of a building that houses one of its own branches, <a href="http://www.bizjournals.com/southflorida/news/2011/05/27/foreclosure-roundup.html?page=all" target="_hplink">South Florida Business Journal reports</a>.
Threatened Over $0.00 Unpaid Mortgage Payment
A Massachusetts man was told he'd <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/08/massachusetts-homeowner-receives-foreclosure_n_872518.html" target="_hplink">face foreclosure unless he paid an outstanding mortgage payment worth $0.00</a>. "I'm going to write a check to them for zero dollars and have it clear? I couldn't help but laugh," he joked with local <a href="http://www.wwlp.com/dpp/news/i_team/I-Team:Man-gets-a-$0-foreclosure-notice" target="_hplink">News 22 WWLP</a>.
Home Allegedly Ransacked By Mortgage Company
Chris Boudreau of Brooksville, Florida <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/06/florida-home-ransacked_n_890656.html" target="_hplink">told local news that his house was ransacked by his mortgage company</a>, 21st Mortgage Corporation, who he says even shredded his wife's wedding dress. "When she saw what happened...she was crying her eyes out," <a href="http://www.wtsp.com/news/local/article/199268/8/Mans-home-trashed-by-mortgage-company" target="_hplink">he told WTSP 10 News</a>.
Mortgage Payment Made Too Early
A senior couple in Pasco County, Florida faced foreclosure not for missing payments, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/22/senior-florida-couple-faces-foreclosure-mortgage-early_n_933147.html" target="_hplink">but for making one too early</a>. According to a Bank of America representative, they made themselves ineligible for a mortgage modification under the Home Affordable Modification Program when they did not make their payment in the "month in which it [was] due."
Foreclosure In 'World's Richest Apartment Building'
Property developer Kent Swig and his soon-to-be ex-wife Elizabeth faced foreclosure from their apartment at 740 Park Avenue, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/26/foreclosure-hits-property-developer-billionaire-building_n_937676.html" target="_hplink">a New York City address often cited as "the world's richest apartment building."</a>
Untransferred Title Leads To Unfair Foreclosure
Brian and Khanklink Pyron of Houston, Texas were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/10/brian-khanklink-pyron-foreclosure_n_1003339.html" target="_hplink">threatened with foreclosure despite keeping current on their payments due to an untransferred title</a>. "We did everything we were supposed to do," Brian Pyron told <a href="http://www.myfoxhouston.com/dpp/news/local/110926-family-hit-by-surprise-foreclosure?CMP=201110_emailshare" target="_hplink">MyFoxHouston</a>.
Foreclosure On Hurricane-Destroyed Home
Brad Gana, of Seabrook, Texas was threatened with foreclosure by Bank of America even though his <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/31/foreclosure-crisis-bank-of-america-hurricane-ike_n_1068080.html" target="_hplink">house had been completely destroyed years earlier in Hurricane Ike</a>. "Bank of America is ruthless in their incompetency," <a href="http://www.click2houston.com/news/Bank-Forecloses-On-Home-Destroyed-By-Ike/-/1735978/4718190/-/vpooliz/-/index.html" target="_hplink">he told Houston 2 News</a>.
$1 Coding Error Leads To Foreclosure
Utah's Shantell Curtis and her family were threatened with <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/03/bofa-foreclosure-missing-1-already-sold-home_n_1074538.html" target="_hplink">foreclosure by Bank of America on a home they had already sold years prior</a>. On top of that, the whole episode concerned the matter of just a $1 coding error.
Investigative Journalist Becomes Foreclosure Victim
George Knapp, chief investigative reporter for Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS, found he was a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/29/foreclosure-crisis-investigative-reporter-george-knapp-victims_n_1119480.html?ref=business" target="_hplink">victim of the very brand of foreclosure fraud he was investigating</a> for a news report. Him being the reporter, the episode put him in a "very weird spot," <a href="http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/als-morning-meeting/153585/local-tv-station-tackles-mortgage-mess-as-investigative-reporter-discovers-hes-a-victim-too/" target="_hplink">he told the Poynter Insitute</a>.
BofA Falsely Threatens Paralyzed Man With Foreclosure
Robert Galanida, a 41-year-old man paralyzed from the shoulders down, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/12/bank-of-america-sends-false-statements-paralyzed-eviction_n_1202463.html" target="_hplink">battled Bank of America for nearly a decade</a> because it repeatedly sent him false statements threatening foreclosure.
Tracy Morgan Refuses Mother Foreclosure Help
In January 2012, actor Tracy Morgan reportedly refused to give his mother <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/31/tracy-morgan-foreclosure-mother_n_1244641.html" target="_hplink">$25,000 she needed to avoid foreclosure</a>, instead offering only $2,000.
Bank Of America Plaza Foreclosure
The Bank of America Plaza in Atlanta was sold at a foreclosure auction in February after its landlord, BentleyForbes, could no longer afford mortgage payments, <a href="http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-02-14/american-foreclosure-bottoms-at-atlanta-tower-auction-mortgages.html" target="_hplink">BusinessWeek reports</a>. BofA <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/10/bank-of-america-plaza-foreclosure_n_1197040.html" target="_hplink">was a tenant in the building at the time</a> but had no other connection besides sharing the tower's ironic name.
JPMorgan Tries To Foreclose On Civil Rights Activist
Even while it promoted a February 2012 campaign to "fulfill" the "vision" of Martin Luther King Jr., <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/07/helen-bailey-foreclosure_n_1260078.html?ref=foreclosure-crisis" target="_hplink">JPMorgan Chase threatened 78-year-old civil rights activist Helen Bailey with foreclosure</a>. The bank ultimately allowed Bailey to stay in her home indefinitely after Occupy Nashville helped bring national attention to the issue, <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2012/02/14/425255/helen-bailey-foreclosure/" target="_hplink">Think Progress</a> reports.
Foreclosure At Luxury Retirement Home
Despite being billed as "cosmopolitan living for ages 60+," the luxury <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/02/fox-hill-foreclosure_n_1314970.html" target="_hplink">Fox Hill Senior Condominiums was threatened with foreclosure</a> in March after its lenders said they were backing out.
Man Fined For Not Mowing His Old Lawn
David Englett was charged with fines by the city of Arlington, Texas for not mowing the lawn of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/02/david-englett_n_1317276.html" target="_hplink">a house he had already lost to foreclosure years earlier</a>.
101-Year-Old Woman Evicted From Home
Texana Hollis was evicted from her home due to foreclosure in September 2011, then <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/22/texana-hollis-evicted-detroit-woman_n_1222452.html?ref=foreclosure-crisis" target="_hplink">denied a subsequent promise that she could move back in</a> by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It wasn't until April 2012 that <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57409700/texana-hollis-evicted-at-101-allowed-back-home/" target="_hplink">she was finally granted permission to return to the home</a> she's lived in for 60 years.
BofA Forecloses On Woman After Telling Her To Miss Payments
According to Pamela Flores, an Atlanta homeowner, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/10/bank-america-foreclosure-miss-mortgage-payment_n_1414988.html" target="_hplink">Bank of America advised her to stop making payments</a> on her loan in order to negotiate a modification. After doing so, the bank foreclosed on her anyway, claiming she'd missed a trial payment
Mother, Disabled Daughter Forced Out Of Home Even After BofA Modification
Dirma Rodriguez and her disabled daughter<a href="https://editorial.huffingtonpost.com/entry/?blog_id=2&entry_id=1423883" target="_hplink"> were forced to flee their home in minutes</a> after Bank of America sold it to a flipper at a foreclosure auction, even though the bank had already modified her loan. But not all hope is lost; Rodriguez may get her home back after the Occupy Fights Foreclosure movement intervened.