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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

CFPB warns debt collectors on “zombie mortgages”

Agency Rule-Making & Guidance Federal Issues CFPB Consumer Finance Debt Collection Mortgages FDCPA Regulation F

Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

On April 26, the CFPB issued an advisory opinion affirming that the FDCPA and implementing Regulation F prohibit covered debt collectors from suing or threatening to sue to collect time-barred debt. As such, a debt collector who brings or threatens to bring a state court foreclosure action to collect a time-barred mortgage debt may violate federal law, the Bureau said. The agency stated that numerous consumers have filed complaints relating to “zombie second mortgages,” where homeowners, operating under the assumption that a mortgage debt was forgiven or was satisfied long ago by loan modifications or bankruptcy proceedings, are contacted years later by a debt collector threatening foreclosure and demanding payment of the outstanding balance along with interest and fees.

The Bureau explained that, leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, many lenders originated mortgages without considering consumers’ ability to repay the loans. Focusing on “piggyback” mortgages (otherwise known as 80/20 loans, in which consumers took out a first lien loan for 80 percent of the value of the home and a second lien loan for the remaining 20 percent of the home’s valuation), the Bureau stated that most lenders did not pursue payment on the second mortgage but instead sold them off to debt collectors. Years later, some of these debt collectors are demanding repayment of the second mortgage and threatening foreclosure, the Bureau said, adding that for many of the mortgages, the debts have become time barred. The Bureau commented that, in most states, consumers can raise this as an affirmative defense to prevent a debt collector from recovering on the debt using judicial processes such as foreclosure. Additionally, because “Regulation F’s prohibition on suits and threats of suit on time-barred debt is subject to a strict liability standard,” a debt collector that sues or threatens to sue “violates the prohibition ‘even if the debt collector neither knew nor should have known that a debt was time-barred,’” the Bureau said. The advisory opinion clarified that these restrictions apply to covered debt collectors, including individuals and entities seeking to collect defaulted mortgage loans and many of the attorneys that bring foreclosure actions on their behalf.

CFPB Director Rohit Chopra delivered remarks during a field hearing in Brooklyn, New York, in which he emphasized that the Bureau will work with state enforcement agencies to take action against covered debt collectors who break the law. He reminded consumers that they can also sue debt collectors themselves under the FDCPA.