Do you know who owns your mortgage? Wanna bet?
In 2004, the nice New York couple who rented me my house decided to retire to San Diego instead of Las Vegas. They asked me if I wanted to buy. I asked the folks at my bank, then called Bank West of Nevada, if they issued mortgage loans, thinking it would be nice not only to patronize a local business, and also to be able to go down the street and visit my mortgage holder in person if there were ever a problem. They told me they did.
That wasn't quite true. When I sat down to sign the forms, it turned out my lender was an outfit called RBMG, which had been acquired in 2001 by NetBank, an Internet outfit which was to crash massively in 2007.
Within weeks, my RBMG mortgage was turned over to Countrywide, or so I thought. Then, when Countrywide tanked, I was told to start sending payments to Bank of America.
By this October, my checks were heading to a company called seterus -- lower-case "s" -- apparently in Pasadena, Calif., though I learned that address is a glorified mail drop.
I've sent them three checks, each for a different amount. For the payment due Oct.1, I was told to use the old Bank of America invoice and payment amount, $1,572.64. For Nov. 1, they billed me $1,535.33. For my payment due Dec. 1, the coupon said to pay $1,498.02.
On Dec. 5 -- even though the payment is not considered past due till Dec. 16 -- one Christopher Hill called me at work from the seterus office in Beaverton, Ore., complaining my payment due Dec. 1 had not been received. I told him I'd mailed the check Nov. 28.
Lo and behold, Mr. Hill searched his computer files and found such a payment had been received, but that it had not "credited." It was being held "in suspense" because it was short by more than $10 from the $1,535.33 required.
I told him I wouldn't have made up a figure like $1,498.02 out of thin air -- it must have been the amount on their coupon. He asked me to check. I told him I would.
That evening, I found the statement. But of course the coupon wasn't there -- I'd mailed it in with my payment, as instructed.
I tried to call seterus back at 9:30 the next morning at the only number they provide. I spent 22 minutes listening to the kind of instrumental music they play at skating rinks.
I checked online. No other phone numbers.
Now pay attention, because this works.
I proceeded to call information for Portland. Under "state government," I asked for the number of the Oregon state Division of Finance and Corporate Securities. These nice folks answered their phones immediately and were happy to tell me seterus isn't an Oregon corporation, at all. All the corporate contact information was in Research Triangle, North Carolina, where the main number for the CEO, CFO, and corporate counsel (all good people to speak to if you can't get through on the skating-rink line) is (888) 576-5277. Furthermore, the "corporate contact person" is one Karen Pollock, at (919) 517-1217, email email@example.com.
No "k." Also no "seterus." Instead ... IBM.
I left a message for Pollock in North Carolina. I then tried the telephone boiler room in Beaverton again, finally reaching not Christopher Hill but one Julie Knox, who wanted the last four digits of my Social Slave number.
Because my Social Security card says right on it "Not for Purposes of Identification" and I had no intention of seeking any government retirement benefits, I declined. (Anyone who knows when and where you were born can reconstruct the first five digits of your Social Slave number in a heartbeat. And no, they don't already have it. Seterus recently sent me a W-9 "request for Social Security number," the only "servicer" ever to do so. I asked my accountant why. He said, "That means they've lost your Social Security number. Don't give it to them.")
Eventually she relented, insisting the amount due showing on my November coupon had been $1,535.33, and I would be considered delinquent unless I mailed them an additional $37.31.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "Isn't it possible that because the first amount I sent you back in September was $1,572.64, based on the old B of A invoice which you instructed me to use, and you've decided to reduce the amount of escrow in your monthly bill and are now billing me $1,535.33, you didn't end up with $37.31 sitting 'in suspense,' and to take care of that you didn't simply send me a November monthly statement asking me to pay $1,498.02?" I asked.
Absolutely not, said Knox.
"OK. I'll mail you the thirty-seven dollars," I said.
"Not thirty-seven dollars," she said. "$37.31."
Well, well. Talk about precision.
So, including $4.50 "to buy Christopher and Karen and Julie each a cup of coffee," I wrote out a check for $41.81, along with a lengthy hand-written cover note, which will require them to spend hours sending me a written reply.
Why? Because seterus is governed by labyrinthine U.S. government protocols on how to handle disputes and inquiries, because seterus doesn't own my mortgage any more than Countrywide or Bank of America ever did.
I asked everyone I spoke to Tuesday who owns that note. Everyone at seterus eventually agreed my note is owned by the Federal National Mortgage Association, Fannie Mae, the actuarially bankrupt government mortgage devourer. All these other outfits -- including the latest one, which is a division of IBM, as hard as they may work to conceal that -- merely refer to themselves as "servicers," like the gals down at the local Asian massage parlor.
By the time I had my check for $41.81 ready to go, the phone rang again.
You've guessed, haven't you? Karen Pollock in Research Triangle, North Carolina, anxious not to talk to me, had contacted one Michelle Patterson, in seterus' Consumer and Government Affairs office in Beaverton, Ore., who can be reached at (503) 270-4036. She'd looked into my account, and what do you suppose she found?
"Because your first payment to us was for $1,572.64, off the old B of A coupon we told you to use, we had an extra $37.31 sitting 'in suspense,' so the amount on your payment coupon due Dec. 1 was $1,498.02, which was the amount you sent us. They billed you that lesser amount to make it all come out even."
Just like I told Christopher and Julie?
"Yes. Unfortunately, that $37.31 had sat there for so long that it got credited as an additional payment against your principle, and that's why they didn't see it on their screens and were telling you to send in an extra $37. So what I did is I grabbed that back and applied it to your December balance, so now you're even and you don't need to send us anything."
Yeah, and she'll still respect me in the morning.
"When Fannie Mae bought this note, did they pay full face value, or did they pay an amount discounted to market?" I asked.
Patterson told me she didn't know.
"Because if they paid full face value for a bunch of Las Vegas mortgages, when the majority of houses here are upside down, that's in effect a government bailout for the issuing banks, which would never have been able to collect full value on these loans, right?"
Patterson told me she didn't know.
So I called Fannie Mae in Washington and spoke to their chief flack, Amy Bonitatibus, at (202) 752-4144. Amy said she couldn't be sure because she didn't have my file in front of her, but in all likelihood she believes Fannie Mae bought my note very shortly after it was issued, and that everyone I've been dealing with since then is merely "a servicer."
And Fannie Mae doesn't get these notes at a discount, given the odds that some of them will default or show losses through short sales?
No, Ms. Bonitatibus said. "When we buy the loan, presumably we pay full face value. That's why we're in so much trouble now, why we're showing these huge losses, because there are so many defaults."
Well, why in heck wouldn't a mortgage writer sell a mortgage to the federal government at full face value, reducing their risk of loss to zero, because all the risk under such a plan now belongs to taxpayers? Who dreamed that up? Barney Frank?
Yet on Aug. 5, on the website Hot Air, Ed Morrissey reported:
"Fannie Mae, which has already eaten over $100 billion of taxpayer money after being absorbed by the federal government in 2008, took a loss in the second quarter of $5.2 billion -- and they want taxpayers to cover it."
I wonder if Fannie Mae's private, never-suffer-a-loss stockholders paid seterus on a cost-plus basis to have their staff spend all those hours on the phone with me Dec. 5 and 6 over a bill that had already been paid on time and in full?
And I'm one of the few idiots who's still diligently paying. How do you think their music-on-hold, "Send us $37 or else" approach is working when it comes to charming the "walk away" gang?
For a hint, check craigslist for a new type of classified ad we've just started seeing, offering to sell the cabinets, plumbing and copper pipe out of upside-down houses, urging buyers to "bring your tools and some cash."
Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the daily Las Vegas Review-Journal, and author of the novel "The Black Arrow" and "Send in the Waco Killers." See www.vinsuprynowicz.com.