The New York Times
By: Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Ben Protess
April 17, 2013
When the bank account is running dry and the mortgage payment is coming due, the phrase "insufficient funds" is the last thing you want to hear.
Now imagine hearing those two words when trying to cash a long-awaited check from the same bank that foreclosed on you.
Many struggling homeowners got exactly that this week when they lined up to take their cut of a $3.6 billion settlement with the nation's largest banks -- lenders accused of wrongful evictions and other abuses.
Ronnie Edward, whose home was sold in a foreclosure auction, waited three years for his $3,000 check. When it arrived on Tuesday, he raced to his local bank in Tennessee, only to learn that the funds "were not available."
Mr. Edward, 38, was taken aback. "Is this for real?" he asked.
It is unclear how many of the 1.4 million homeowners who were mailed the first round of payments covered under the foreclosure settlement have had problems with their checks. But housing advocates from California to New York and even regulators say that in recent days frustrated homeowners have bombarded them with complaints and questions.
The mishap is just the latest setback to troubled homeowners. It took more than two years to resolve a federal investigation into the foreclosure abuses. Even after the settlement in January, the checks were delayed for weeks.
"It's the perfect ending for such a debacle," said Michael Redman, a paralegal who runs 4closurefraud.org, a Web site for victims of foreclosure abuse. He said he had received 15 e-mails on Tuesday from homeowners whose checks bounced.
The first round of the settlement checks was mailed last week. In recent days, problems arose at Rust Consulting, a firm chosen to distribute the checks, people briefed on the matter said. After collecting the $3.6 billion from the banks, these people said, Rust failed to move the money into a central account at Huntington National Bank in Ohio, the bank that issued the checks to homeowners.
Many banks, after spotting a phone number for Huntington on the back of the checks and confirming the legitimacy of the money, agreed to process the payments. But some credit unions, check cashers and community banks apparently looked only at the account number on the unfamiliar-looking checks and ultimately found a zero balance, the people briefed on the matter said.
Rust says it does not know how many homeowners encountered the check mishap, adding only that it "was aware of 12 situations."
Still, banking regulators, frustrated with missteps at Rust, urged the consulting firm to shore up the account Tuesday. Now, regulators say the problems are resolved, and are urging homeowners to try again. Officials worry that homeowners, weary from a process that has stretched on for years, will give up.
In a statement, the Federal Reserve assured the public that "Rust subsequently corrected problems," adding that the Fed would "continue to monitor the payments closely."
Rust, an oft-used middleman for class action lawsuits and government settlements, has faced similar concerns previously. In 2006, when it helped distribute payments from a class-action case involving title insurance costs, some consumers complained that the checks bounced.
Some officials say it is common for Rust to keep accounts empty. Rather than lose access to the money, the firm often fills requests for payment at the end of each day. The officials have questioned whether Rust hangs on to the cash to earn interest throughout the day. Others noted that it may be difficult to move a sum as large as $3.6 billion into a single account.
"We apologize to anyone who experienced problems trying to cash their checks," a senior vice president at Rust, James Parks, said in a statement. "We are working hard and communicating with the banking regulators, the servicers, and other banks to ensure those issues are not repeated."
Rust is authorizing its employees to arrange conference calls with Huntington National Bank to provide outside verification that the cash is available, a company spokesman said.
Housing advocates remain wary, however. The Northside Bank Tenant Association in Boston held a meeting on Wednesday where housing advocates addressed questions from frustrated homeowners. Also in Massachusetts, Lynn United for Change said it had received calls from at least six homeowners in the last two days.
Regulators have said that, by the end of Tuesday, homeowners successfully cashed or deposited about 342,000 checks, or roughly 25 percent of the total checks issued. That leaves more than 1 million people who have either delayed cashing the check or have had problems doing so.
The homeowners unable to cash the checks are not the only ones languishing. Many are still mired in bureaucratic delays, like Nancy Brown, of Fredericksburg, Va., who recently learned that her check will be made out jointly to her and her ex-husband, whom she has lost contact with. As a result, she fears being unable to collect the money.
Other homeowners like Yanko Matias, of Lynn, Mass., say they are afraid to cash the checks. Mr. Matias, 37, was initially wary that the $500 he received was just another empty promise -- or worse, a scam.
"I just want my house back," Mr. Matias said.
For Mr. Edward, the Tennessee man, the check mishap caps a foreclosure "nightmare" that began in 2010 when a neighbor called to tell him that his home was being advertised for foreclosure auction in the local paper. Mr. Edward, a retail supervisor who left the home later that year, said it was the first he learned of the foreclosure.
With the check cashing denied on Tuesday, Mr. Edward remarked: "This is the latest runaround."