St. Petersburg, Florida -- The American dream of owning a home is the most important investment of your life. But many homeowners don't know who owns their mortgage.
No matter where you live in the Tampa Bay area, there's an easy way to look up that information. But once you start digging, you might be stunned by what you find.
"Your whole life story is in the records. Public records in your clerk's office. This has been true for hundreds of years," said Chips Shore, Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court.
But for the last several years since the massive financial crisis in the U.S. there has been a serious problem with some of those documents.
Wall Street took short cuts when it bundled thousands of homeowners mortgages into securities that were traded from investor to investor. But in the process, many banks lost track of those critical ownership documents.
So what did they do? Matt Weidner, a consumer defense attorney in St. Petersburg, said some banks resorted to forgery and phony paperwork to fill in the blanks.
"The banks are scrambling to try and explain where this thing really is," Weidner said. "And a big part of our practice is to try to follow that daisy chain and realizing that the pieces don't line up."
It's not hard to find examples of that. 10 News discovered dozens and dozens questionable signatures on Assignment of Mortgage documents. We looked at one from three years ago.
It shows Crystal Moore's signature as the Vice President of First Horizon Home Loans. Moore admitted in a videotaped deposition in November of 2010 that she has no training in banking, finance, real estate or law. In that deposition she said, "I graduated high school and went to college for a year."
Bryan Bly is listed as the Notary Public on the same document. But then just last year on the very same house - the loan is transferred to MetLife and Bly seems to have been promoted to Vice President of that bank.
His co-worker, Crystal Moore, signs off on that document as the Notary Public.
Both work for Nationwide Title Clearing, a Palm Harbor Company.
In a videotaped deposition, Bly, with a high school education, explains that he works as a signer for the company.
Attorney Christopher Forrest says to Bly in the tape, "Both of the documents I've shown you are titled Assignment of Mortgage. What is your understanding of that term? What is an Assignment of Mortgage?"
Bly answers, "Um, I'm not really sure."
One thing he said he was sure of was how many of those documents he was signing each day. Bly said at that time he'd probably signed 50 to 60,000 of those documents, about 5,000 each day.
He added that he spent no time verifying any of the information in the body of the document. He just signed it.
Chips Shore is so concerned about the problem that he's urged people to check their records - which are public - either online or in his office as soon as possible.
"And they should do it just like they do their credit report," Shore said.
That's because right now there doesn't appear to be a way to stop the robo-signings.
"It's really hard for us as clerks too, because we have no control over it," Shore said. "The law says we can only accept it if it's correct on its face, and they pay for it so... it's a problem and I don't know a way to correct it right now."
Shore said as it stands right now, if you find evidence of robo-signing on your Assignment of Mortgage, you have to contact the person whose name is on the paperwork, then you need to head to court.
"It's a real process and it's not inexpensive. You have to file with the court and it takes months to be heard to clear up, and it's just a shame," Shore said. "I don't think it's fair for the person that has the deed registered here to have to go to circuit court to clear it."
Shore goes on to say, "One of the problems with the robo-signings is there have been so many that the banks actually don't have that information. A lot of times they won't have the original mortgage. A lot of time they'll have someone else's mortgage and yours. The deeds are mixed up. It's really become a problem and that's why our courts are so backed up with these foreclosures."
No one knows that better than Circuit Judge Thomas McGrady, who said in Pinellas and Pasco counties alone, the number of foreclosures continue to pour in.
"They're coming in at about 700 cases per month, which is about half of what it was a year ago. Primarily we believe it's due to the moratorium and all the problems with the so called robo-signers."
McGrady isn't expecting the number of foreclosures to decrease anytime soon. In fact, he's predicting just the opposite.
"We anticipate from everything we're hearing that there will be another influx of them in the near future."
Meanwhile, attorney Matt Weidner said even if you're not at risk of foreclosure, you could still face legal problems down the road if the chain of title on your property is lost.
"But it's the business of every single homeowner and every other person in this society, because all of this stuff that's going on up here is what's crashed our financial system."
Weidner said there are three things you can do to protect yourself.
- Go to your county property recorder in person or online to check your mortgage.
- Pull your credit report to make sure the information there matches up with information from the lender.
- You should also send send a qualified written request to your lender saying you want proof and documentation of your loan.
10 News contacted Nationwide Title Clearing to get their side of the story on camera, but we were turned down. By phone, we were told they do not robo-sign and that they are in full compliance with the law.
A spokesperson for the company added that they have never been found guilty of any wrongdoing.
We're told Bryan Bly and Crystal Moore still work with the company - but received so many death threats after those video depositions that they no longer work as "signers."
Tammie Fields, 10 News