By Mark Strassmann of CBS News
In Montgomery, Alabama, Ben and Lula Johnson could lose their house, CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann reports.
They thought they would always be able to live there and retire there. Instead their home is in foreclosure to what they say is a predatory lender; not a corner loan shark, but CitiFinancial, a subsidiary of Citigroup, America’s banking powerhouse.
“They just keep at you until they take all your assets and just strip you with nothing,” says Lula Johnson.
Consumer critics worry America’s biggest banks are also predatory lenders; that through subsidiaries, they target people in the so-called “sub-prime” market, with few credit options, and sock them with high interest rates, repeated financing (called “flipping”) and fees and credit insurance (called “packing”).
And it’s mostly legal.
“There’s an Old West atmosphere in sub-prime lending. These institutions tend to be very lightly regulated and it’s a buyer-beware experience,” says Allen Fishbein of the National Consumer Federation.
Out of the blue comes a check in the mail. Usually it’s for a couple of thousand dollars. When you cash the check, more offers keep coming for bigger amounts, and that’s how the debt cycle begins.
Mary Jackson refinanced her loan twice with a lender now owned by CitiFinancial.
And now, Jackson says, CitiFinancial owns the mortgage on her house.
“CitiFinancial, they have it now. And even with it being as big as it is, they’re still trying to get us to get more money,” she says.
Lawyer Tom Methvin‘s firm represents 11,000 people, who say predatory lenders ripped them off.
“They are specifically targeted,” Methvin says. “They are sucked into the web and they are robbed blind.”
In a statement, CitiFinancial said “significant changes” already are “raising standards.”
The company says it has also reduced fees and suspended thousands of foreclosures.
But for now, Lula Johnson lives in a house she no longer owns.
“We have spent over half our life right here. Right here,” she says. “So where are we going?”
And Mary Jackson? More loan offers just keep coming.