Against din of housing slump and unemployment, credit-card reform loophole exploited: subprime, pre-account fees

August 26th, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw

Let’s survey some ledes from around the country.

Housing, unemployment, bankruptcy

“Housing sales in July plunged to their lowest level in more than a decade, exceeding even the grimmest forecasts.”

That’s from The New York Times, Aug. 24.

Here’s another, also from the same edition of the Times: “The Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index ended lower Tuesday for a fourth consecutive day, unable to rebound from a disappointing report on existing-home sales.”

This one’s from the Wall Street Journal, Aug. 5: “More Americans filed for bankruptcy protection in July, reversing a trend of declining filings over the previous three months and highlighting the continuing financial struggles of many consumers.”

Highest rates since ‘reform act’ of ’05

“Long-term unemployment and small-business failures continue to propel personal bankruptcy filings,” reports an Aug. 22 article in the Tenneseean (our emphasis added), “with Tennessee in step with a national trend that shows the number of cases spiking in July for the first time after declining for three months.

From the Aug. 18 Economist, we get the following brief (and the following chart, as well, based on data from the Administrative Office of  the US Courts): “Bankruptcy filings rose 20% in the year to June 30th compared with the previous 12-month period, according to statistics released on August 17th by the Administrative Office of the US Courts. This takes quarterly filings to their highest point since tougher bankruptcy laws were introduced at the end of 2005. That change brought a spike of bankruptcies, as companies and individuals rushed to declare themselves broke under the more lenient old regime. The data suggest that an older trend is reasserting itself. This is could be more bad news for America—or it could just mean that creative destruction is alive and well.”

US-Bankruptcy historical chart

One recent blog mentions that the return to pre-2005 levels may “merely be” a statistical “reversion to mean.”

Election fodder?

That would be some mean-dang revertin’, all right, given that the credit-card lobby’s pure intent in getting the “reform act” of ’05  was to make it harder for people to file for Chapter 7 protection. They did, and it is–yet, Chapter 7 filings far outnumber Chapter 13 filings.

Perhaps cheekily, the blog ends with the admonition to watch for this chart as the election nears–with the rejoinder to see how many times it appears with the pre-2005 years left off the chart. But, really, that’s a good suggestion: Any candidate from any party who monkeys with the data should be immediately suspect.

Reform fail? Credit-card company hits loophole

Speaking of credit-card companies, it looks as though at least some are definitely reverting to mean. The credit-card reform legislation passed last year was supposed to rein in the heinous practices of the industry. But as this Aug. 21 piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch demonstrates, loopholes already are being exploited.

“When Congress passed the credit card reform act last year, it took aim at the sort of high-fee card that sat in Lynne Fischer’s purse until recently. There’s now some evidence that Congress missed.

“Lynne Fischer, 64, lives in St. Louis Hills on about $1,700 a month from a small pension and a disability check. She’s had problems paying some bills. ‘My credit history is not well,’ she says.

“Still, she wanted a credit card for emergencies: ‘What if my car breaks down?’ she asked. When the mail last fall brought an offer from First Premier Bank of South Dakota, she applied.

“It was a costly decision. . . .”

The article describes First Premier as using this business model: The company “offers cards for people with bad credit, and they charge significant up-front fees. They pitch the card as a way for customers to rebuild their credit by making on-time payments.”

The article also says that consumer advocates label such practitioners as predatory “fee harvesters,” a term we will probably see more often in the months to come. At any rate, and perhaps needless to belabor, she finally realized it was a stinky deal: “Fischer sometimes made only the minimum payment, and so she ended up paying interest on those fees. When she called to cancel the card this summer, she says the bank’s representative insisted that she pay $253 — an amount consisting mainly of the fees.”

Oh–but there’s more. The quote next at bat really, truly exhibits the depths of the ether-soaked depravity in which these companies are willing to traffic.

“As of last week, First Premier was offering a card with an annual fee of $75. That’s 25 percent of the $300 credit limit. But it also has a $95 ‘processing fee’ that must be paid before the customer gets the card.

“It’s perfectly legal, says First Premier. ‘The credit card act does not preclude fees charged prior to the account being opened,’ says Darrin Graham, the bank’s vice president for marketing. So, the $95 fee doesn’t count.”

Holy moly and Great Winged-Leaping Lizard-Bats! and whatever other mythical creatures that defy reason. Let’s look at that statement again, with emphasis added:

“The credit card act does not preclude fees charged prior to the account being opened.”

Just imagine if this becomes a trend: Utility companies guess where we’re going to move, then start billing us before we move in; Redbox and Netflix get predictive software, and charge us for movies before we select them. And on and on…

Perhaps First Premier is simply running interference for the rest of the industry, trying an end-around to see how much trouble such tactics will attract. Or perhaps they really are the junkies they appear to be, addicted to cash flow they pump from the least sophisticated, most vulnerable consumers they can bag. We’ll keep following and let you know what we find.

[Next time: Using credit cards under the new law and credit for college-age children.]


The bankruptcy reform act of 2005 increased the complexity of the law, but if you are overwhelmed by debt, filing for bankruptcy protection may be your most pragmatic alternative. If you are facing foreclosure of your home (sometimes referred to as your “primary residence,” as opposed to a second home, or “vacation home”), bankruptcy protection may be your best route to saving the home. If you are struggling with medical bills, you may be in a special category for setting debt aside, and if you have problems with credit-card debt, you should be aware that some of those laws have changed recently, too. Whatever you do, before making major, life-changing financial decisions, consider consulting a trained, experience attorney. For bankruptcy basics, please see:

Principles of bankruptcy

Basics of bankruptcy

Introduction to Chapter 7

Introduction to Chapter 13

‘Moral failing’ comments strikes columnist wrong way; ‘rich and famous’ showing up with bankruptcies, foreclosures

April 21st, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw

Not to beat a dead(beat) horse ourselves, but the “myth of the deadbeat” comes up fairly regularly when researching bankruptcy topics. We most recently this phenomenon a few weeks ago here, where we mentioned that at least one news outlet has quit covering weekly info on personal bankruptcies because, well, it’s just not newsworthy.

Yet, with every new round of data concerning bankruptcy rates, it seems like somebody, somewhere  has to trot out this old, tired pony and flog it around the arena of “shame-on-you.”

The latest, apparently,  is a woman named Mary Hunt, who runs some sort of debt-control Web site called DPL, short for “Debt-Proof Living.” Her regimen looks kinda like Dave Ramsey’s: there’s a “boot camp,” a repayment plan,  and a component for building emergency funds. She offers a free newsletter, and paid members get access at various monthly subscriptions (three months for $10, six for $18, a year for $29, etc.).  Today’s home page offers such tidbits as “Five Quick and Easy Tricks with Bacon”; a method for “Quick Bathroom Cleanup”; and “Mary’s Thought for the Day” for anyone who might “Feel Like a Failure” (if so, keep persevering…like Abraham Lincoln did).

Which, of course, is all good: if she can make a buck by helping folks get debt under control–hey, why not?

‘Moral failing’

But in at least one columnist’s opinion, Hunt went over the top in a recent version of her blog. Writing April 17 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune, John Ewoldt says: “Everyday Cheapskate” columnist Mary Hunt wrote recently that bankruptcy is a moral failing. Hunt’s opinion isn’t a random swipe — it is based on personal experience after she slowly clawed her way out of a $100,000 credit card debt without declaring bankruptcy. Since then, she has written many books about using credit wisely.

“Hunt’s ‘moral failing’ comment was in response to a personal finance expert who wrote that if you can’t get out of your financial mess in two years, consider filing for personal bankruptcy.

As Ewoldt says, people need to be accountable.  No competent professional will say otherwise. In fact, anyone who downplays the gravity of filing for bankruptcy protection is neither competent nor professional.

But “moral failing” ? That’s simply ridiculous.

Have unscrupulous people ever dodged debt by playing the system? Undoubtedly. But for most–especially nowadays, in this economy, in this crisis–it’s simply a business decision.

Well, don’t buy GM cars, then

Ewoldt asks: “Where’s her column that no one should buy a vehicle from General Motors because it needed a bailout?”

Indeed. In fact, upon reading her background story, one suspects Hunt might be projecting qualities from her past–behavior from years ago–onto jammed-up debtors of today.  According to Hunt, her early years of marriage were characterized by her impulsive, compulsive spending and abuse of every credit card she could lay hands on, mail-order catalogs and even the checkbook–issued from the bank where her husband was a manager. No doubt that caused some friction at home.

Having hit bottom, the pair eventually turned things around. She writes: “It took us 13 years to pay back more than $100,000 in unsecured debt, plus all the penalties and interest. Had I known then what I know now, we could have paid it back in six years or less. But, that’s not important now. What matters is that we did it … we persevered and we are so much better for having gone through it.”

That’s nice. But what really matters is they learned their lesson, and she quit committing credit abuse.

But most folks fighting to keep their homes, fending off harassment, looking for work or dealing with a medical emergency are not guilty of the types of out-of-control acquisition that Hunt concedes afflicted her.

Medical bills, job loss, divorce

According to Ewoldt, “More than 60 percent of people who declare bankruptcy are in over their heads due to medical bills, according to a 2007 study published last year by the American Journal of Medicine. While Hunt and others personalize bankruptcy as people spending willy-nilly or gambling away the farm, about 90 percent of personal bankruptcies result from medical bills, job loss or divorce, said Henry Sommer, the former president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.”

And from the Big Huff herself, at Huffington Post (Apr. 5), we see a reference to a study that’s gaining traction around the Web, in a piece in which Huffington writes: “The consequences of our failed financial system are everywhere you look.”

Huffington, whose larger point is the pressing, critical need for deep, meaningful reform of the financial system, writes: “A study by Elizabeth Warren and Ohio University’s Deborah Thorne, entitled ‘The Vulnerable Middle Class: Bankruptcy and Class Status,’ found that the personal bankruptcy surge is being led by former members of the middle class.

“According to the report, the proportion of bankruptcies filed by those who had attended college went from around 46 percent in 1991 to almost 60 percent in 2007. And, ominously, the data for the report was compiled before the economic crash. ‘I’m almost afraid to look at the data now,’ says Warren.”

Rich and famous

An April 9 article in The Wall Street Journal, headlined “Foreclosures Hit Rich and Famous,” informs us that “Big borrowers are more likely to default than ordinary people, according to data from First American CoreLogic. Its loan database, reflecting more than 80% of the overall home-loan market, includes 1,700 loans with balances of $4 million or more. About 14.8% of those loans were 90 days or more overdue at the end of January, compared with 8.7% for all home loans tracked by First American. Sam Khater, a senior economist at First American, said the bigger borrowers may be more prone [than smaller borrowers] to stop making payments when they have lost all their home equity.”

And, yes, it raises eyebrows to learn that actor Nicholas Cage had “a Tudor mansion in Bel-Air” that “was in foreclosure auction . . . [but] reverted to the lender.”

Even more telling, though, is the case of a formerly high-flying exec at Merrill Lynch, Richard Fuscone, whose 14-acre estate in Westchester  was on the foreclosure block. “Mr. Fuscone, Merrill Lynch’s one-time head of Latin America, put his mansion up for sale in November, asking $13.9 million. But he couldn’t find a buyer.

The court had scheduled a foreclosure auction for Thursday for the 18,471-square-foot mansion—with two swimming pools, two elevators, six fireplaces, 11 bathrooms and a seven-car garage.”

But Fuscone took action and got the foreclosure process stalled. How’d he do that?

He filed for bankruptcy protection:

“The personal bankruptcy filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court Wednesday temporarily freezes the foreclosure process.

“Reached by phone, Mr. Fuscone declined to comment. Brokers and real estate tracking companies say that his home is one of the most expensive properties to face foreclosure proceedings yet.”

Well, at least he was reached.

Ewoldt says he e-mailed Ms. Hunt but received no reply.

“Hunt,” he writes, “who didn’t reply to an e-mail outlining these concerns, should quit picking on the little guy.”

(Editor’s note: In the next installment, Mike Hinshaw will take a look at life after bankruptcy.)


The bankruptcy reform act of 2005 increased the complexity of the law, but if you are overwhelmed by debt, filing for bankruptcy protection may be your most pragmatic alternative. If you are facing foreclosure of your home (sometimes referred to as your “primary residence,” as opposed to a second home, or “vacation home”), bankruptcy protection may be your best route to saving the home. If you are struggling with medical bills, you may be in a special category for setting debt aside, and if you have problems with credit-card debt, you should be aware that some of those laws have changed recently, too. Whatever you do, before making major, life-changing financial decisions, consider consulting a trained, experience attorney. For bankruptcy basics, please see:

Principles of bankruptcy

Basics of bankruptcy

Introduction to Chapter 7

Introduction to Chapter 13

Avoid Predators When Facing Foreclosure

July 18th, 2009 by Lance

In July the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced its latest effort to prosecute companies that practice mortgage modification scams. Code named “Operation Loan Lies,” the crackdown on predatory companies is in response to complaints from homeowners facing foreclosure.

Your best defense against these attacks is to know their tactics. When a company guarantees to modify your loan or stop the foreclosure after you pay up front, beware. You’ll likely lose more money yet still be faced with foreclosure.

While the scams originated in California, 25 federal and state agencies are now involved in combating this growing fraud.

While avoiding these scams, consider filing for bankruptcy as a legitimate, detailed alternative.  Your effort to reorganize your finances through Chapter 13 bankruptcy will stop a foreclosure for the period that you are in bankruptcy.

Unlike corporations, individuals like you can file for Chapter 13 of the bankruptcy code. This creates a bankruptcy estate which includes your property. A payment plan can be created which allows you to pay previous mortgage payments over time while still enabling you to meet your basic living expenses.

Not all individual cases qualify for Chapter 13, and credit limitations are created as a result of personal bankruptcy. Many states also have different rules regarding bankruptcy.

But a trusted bankruptcy attorney can evaluate your situation and serve as a legitimate advocate for your financial needs. They will be familiar with state laws regarding bankruptcy, ensuring that your actions to reduce your debt are compliant and effective.

The ultimate goal is to not only weather the financial storm, but create a detailed plan that best utilizes your finances moving forward. Quick-fix schemes will only put you further behind your payment obligations.

If you are faced with an impending foreclosure, don’t become the next victim of a mortgage modification scam. Contact a trusted local bankruptcy lawyer to explore your options.

Obama’s trip West may signal power shift in bankruptcy law

February 16th, 2009 by Mike Hinshaw

Flush with a legislative victory, President Obama is scheduled to appear in Denver Feb. 17, when he will sign the $787 billion economic stimulus bill passed late in the day Feb. 13.  Hopeably, the bill’s passage on a Friday 13th won’t turn out to be a bad omen. That is, maybe some of the money and relief will actually reach people who need help this time–unlike the “bailout” funds that banks hoarded when the government made its little oopsie last fall and forgot to require even a minimum of loans targeted toward distressed homeowners.

After Tuesday’s signing at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the president leaves the Rockies for a Wednesday jaunt to Phoenix, where he’s expected to present his plan to stanch the hemorrhage of nationwide home foreclosures.

But Obama has a little public relations oopsie of his own: Part of the reason for the visits to Denver and Phoenix, according to a Chicago Tribune reporter, is “to refocus attention on ordinary people who might benefit from seeing the stimulus enacted.”

You know, slip out of the Beltway and mingle with the real folks… hunker down with the plebes… Well, apparently ordinary citizens got a shot at tickets to the Phoenix event, but the signing of the new bill is–according to the Denver museum–closed to the public. Posted at the museum’s Web site the day before the event, the explanation reads somewhat tersely: “This White House event is for invited guests only, and all tickets have been distributed. There are no remaining invitations.”

Oh, well, at least the hoedown for “Teachers, PTA members and school administrators” later that evening won’t get the kibosh: “Spring Educators Night scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening will still go on as planned.” …whew!

Public relations gaffe aside, the event in Phoenix may well herald an historic shift in power. Since 1979, bankruptcy judges presiding over a Chapter 13 filing have not been able to modify mortgage terms on a primary residence. Astonishingly enough, using what lenders disparage as “cram down” powers, a judge can lower the amount owed on autos, boats, credit cards–and even a vacation home. But for decades, the mortgage-lending lobby has managed a white-knuckle death grip on the terms of primary residence loans.

Of course, such power is completely understandable. According to a Feb. 6 piece in the Mercury News, keeping the judges’ hands off the note, “allows lenders to foreclose on delinquent homeowners to force quick recovery of what they’re owed — part of the reason why foreclosures are so numerous.

“According to the mortgage industry data firm RealtyTrac, lenders filed for foreclosure on 2.3 million homes last year, up 81 percent from 2007 and 225 percent higher than the filing rate in 2006.”

The article posits a sea change that has been at least a couple of years in the making. “For the past two years, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have been pushing for a change in the bankruptcy law to include principal residence loans on the list of debts that can be ‘judicially modified’ — crammed down — by the courts. They argued that banks and mortgage companies too often have been unwilling to offer delinquent borrowers serious modifications on loans because they have the option to pull the plug and foreclose.

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