Ga. mortgage problems dropping, regulators say

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ATLANTA -- The number of mortgage lenders slapped with state sanctions dropped in 2011 to nearly half the previous year, according to an annual report of the Georgia Department of Banking & Finance.

Administrative actions against mortgage lenders peaked in 2010 at 723. Last year’s 47 percent drop still resulted in 383 sanctions, higher than the previous peak of 324 in 2007.

Three-fourths of the actions were for unlicensed activity.

Ironically, there might have been more sanctions if the agency’s examiners who investigate complaints weren’t busy sorting through a flood of applications to get licensed. Last year, the department got more than 2,000 applications now that federal law mandates it.

One in seven is rejected. They may have failed the required tests or simply didn’t have their personal finances in order since a bad credit rating is a basis for denial.

Deputy Commissioner Rob Carnes said a new federal law requires states to license mortgage originators, swamping the Georgia agency.

“It was an all-hands sort of thing,” he said.

Despite having its examiners distracted, Georgia has improved consumer protection he said, noting that the state has dropped from having the most mortgage fraud in the nation to no longer ranking in the worst half of states.

“We are very happy to report that mortgage fraud is going down and in the right direction, but ... that doesn’t mean all of our problems have gone away,” he said.

Some in the industry agree.

Frank Lee, first vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association of Georgia, said the high number of cases in the state is actually proof the agency is effective.

“That means we’re catching a lot of people. In the states with lower numbers, they’re just not catching them, because I assure you there’s the activity everywhere,” said Lee, who is with First Bank Mortgage in Augusta.

The licensing requirements and increased regulation have shrunk the number of mortgage-related jobs. Many small companies closed their doors when they couldn’t meet new federal capitalization minimums, and people who couldn’t pass the licensing standards either left the field or went to banks where the requirements are different.

“The (federal) regulations definitely have made it more difficult to stay in the business,” Lee said. “I’ll be the first to say it’s a little bit overboard.”

Carnes said the regulations and the changes in the economy may do little to prevent some people from engaging in fraud or unlicensed activity.

“Both of those activities remain constant whether the economy is going well or not,” he said.

The types of mischief may evolve with changing economic conditions, but he expects the number of complaints to remain constant.

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