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A $5 fee results in threatening letters

Friday, November 16, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

Each day it seems I get another letter from my mortgage company.
The first one demanded that I immediately mail the original copy of my Cook County property tax bill to them.
It threatened fines, penalties and, I think, jail time if I did not do this immediately.
A few days later, a second letter arrived.
Please ignore the previous letter, it said. The mortgage company had obtained an electronic copy of the tax bill and didn't need my help.
I breathed a sigh of relief although my wife and I, wanting to avoid fines and prison time, had immediately mailed an original copy of the tax bill as soon as we received the first letter.
The next day, another letter arrived.
It once again demanded that we send a copy of our original tax bill in the mail. I didn't read it very carefully, but it sure seemed threatening.
"Did you call to see if our original tax bill arrived at the mortgage company?" I asked my wife.
She said only a few days had passed, and given the snail-like pace of the mail, she had thought it better to wait a few days.
"We're going to lose the house," I whined. "We're going to be fined. We're going to end up in a prison cell with former Gov. George Ryan, and he's going to spend the next five years complaining to me about the unfair treatment he received in the news media."
Fortunately, my wife retains her head while all about her (especially me) are losing theirs.
She noted the third letter (a threatening one) was actually dated prior to the second letter (the one telling us to ignore the first letter).
As a bold, courageous newspaper columnist who spits in the face of danger, I was more than a little chagrined. I had acted like any other spineless mindless consumer faced with threats from a corporate giant.
I thought of all the little senior citizens who must be getting these threats from mortgage companies. I'm told letters representing about 25 lenders were mailed out.
Their biggest investment is probably their home. It represents security.
And now they were getting threatening letters from mortgage companies, followed by other letters telling them to ignore the threatening letters.
It has to be pretty confusing and very alarming.
Thinking about all of that, I got angry.
And then I found out what was behind all the letters.
Earlier this year, Cook County decided to charge mortgage companies $5 to send them an electronic duplicate of the property tax bills, which were previously provided free of charge.
The mortgage companies use these bills to deduct property tax payments from escrow accounts, paid for by homeowners.
According to Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, some mortgage companies decided they didn't want to pay the $5 fee so they mailed letters to homeowners, demanding copies of the original bills.
Those letters also said that because the county treasurer charges a fee for late payment and the payment deadline is Dec. 3, homeowners would be personally responsible for the penalty if they were late in mailing those original tax bills to the mortgage companies.
Pappas contends that under federal law, a mortgage company must pay a property tax out of an escrow account on time - whether or not they have the original bill.
"The companies are suggesting that if property owners do not send them their bill, the companies may not be able to pay their taxes on time and the owners then might face late-payment penalties," Pappas said in a statement on her Web site. "This is misleading."
Federal law holds mortgage lenders, not homeowners, responsible for late penalties made from escrow accounts, Pappas stated.
So this all began because mortgage companies didn't want to spend $5 for an electronic duplicate of the property tax bill.
I figured in a giant mortgage company no one person makes a decision like that.
There had to be meetings with all sorts of top executives and lawyers.
Then someone had to draft the language of the letter. A secretary was probably assigned to write the letter.
The letter was probably reviewed by some vice president and kicked up to the president and then kicked up to legal for final review.
Pappas said I'm wrong.
She said she discovered many of the mortgage companies outsource real estate tax bills to another mortgage company.
In this case, First American Real Estate Tax Services, for example, sent out letters on behalf of Citimortgage.
"I called the president of Citimortgage, and he told me he didn't even know the original letter went out," Pappas said.
"I think that's when he ordered the second letter telling people to ignore the first letter.
"But by that time First American had probably sent out its second letter, which was your third letter."
Pappas said she's been called by local bank officials because customers are complaining to them, thinking these letters are some sort of identity theft scam.
"The people at the banks didn't know what was going on," Pappas said.
Readers are always telling me they wish government were run more like a business.
As this case illustrates, sometimes there isn't much difference.

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