Local TV station tackles mortgage mess as investigative reporter discovers he's a victim, too

It is so easy to find examples of local TV stations pulling ratings months stunts that make me wince. From a topless reporter in Cleveland to an Atlanta TV station using voice analysis to try to figure out if Herman Cain is lying. (Their expert concluded Cain is truthful and his accuser isn't.)

But here is a TV station that takes another tactic. KLAS used the November sweeps period to produce hard hitting local investigative reporting on a complex subject of critical local importance, coupled with thoughtful and useful online content that drive the story home.

Lots of journalists have done great work on mortgage fraud. KLAS, the CBS affiliate in Las Vegas, has been reporting on the mortgage crisis for years. Their first story was in 2007. But the mortgage problems grew worse and the housing crisis is now, by far, the region's biggest problem. Vegas find itself among the hardest hit communities in the country. An astonishing 63 percent of Las Vegas area homes are underwater -- not worth what the homeowner owes on them. In November, half of all Las Vegas area homes on the market were offered as short sales -- offered at a price less than what's owed on them. The national average, KLAS says, is 17 percent.

The fraud that started with loan modifications turned into short selling fraud, then foreclosure fraud. The latest problem is with homes that buyers purchased from foreclosure auctions. The buyers followed the law, paid their bills and now are learning that millions of their titles are worthless. As the station explains, "The fraud happened because mortgage servicers failed to properly foreclose and as a result the chain of title on tens of thousands of homes bought out of foreclosure is corrupted."


Before a lender can take your home, it has to file a foreclosure notice. The document has to include the signature of the trustee who has the legal right to your property and the signature of a notary who witnesses the trustee's signature.

KLAS investigative reporter Colleen McCarty said the station began examining the Clark County property records to see who was signing the massive number of foreclosure notices filed with the county. After only a few minutes of examination, it became obvious that foreclosure papers were being "robo-signed" by title companies, meaning several people would sign the name of a single notary. In one case, one title company was filing 400 robo-signed foreclosures a day for four years. (See the story.)

The churn was so fast, a private company in Virginia took over for county recorders. KLAS said, "The result has been millions of bogus mortgage documents signed by non-existent notaries." This same company, Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS) has been in the news for the past couple of years for paperwork problems.

"60 Minutes" reported on the problems of unauthenticated documents earlier this year. The documents problem results in banks not knowing who owns thousands of parcels of property on which the banks hold loans. So scammers move in, claim they own the property and sell them to unsuspecting buyers.

The robo-signing speeds up the foreclosure process, skipping past the safeguards that require a trustee to be sure all of the documents in the foreclosure are legitimate, that the homeowner really is behind on payments and that everyone has been given proper notification. With such a firehose of filings, there is no way for county government to check, so they just record them and the foreclosures proceed.

Nevada's State Attorney General is now calling the County Recorder's office the equivalent to a "crime scene," and one title company employee has entered into a plea deal with prosecutors to help them sort through the mess.

McCarty told me, "This is the tip of the iceberg. Our information from the State Attorney General's office is they are continuing a number of active investigations into robo-signing practices. There were tens of thousands of foreclosure documents filed as early as 2007."

KLAS Investigator Victimized

The station's chief investigative reporter, George Knapp,  found himself victimized by the very system the station was investigating.

Knapp was interviewing attorney Tisha Black, considered one of Vegas' premier foreclosure lawyers, when she told him that "9 of every 10 people she sees who bought homes out of foreclosure have some kind of problem with their chain of title."

Knapp said he wondered if she was exaggerating and mentioned that he had purchased a foreclosed home from a bank. Within a few minutes, she handed over a stack of papers showing the reporter that he had been taken in by the very fraud that he was investigating. The Nevada Attorney General's Office confirmed to Knapp that he does not own his home because of bogus signatures and improper filings on his home's title.

Knapp told me:

Needless to say, this put me in an awkward spot. I sure as hell want to help put away anyone who's got it coming, but I was still investigating the story and our series was still a week away from airing.

We had internal discussions about whether or not to even mention my personal situation and whether it was a conflict for me to continue.

My managers thought it was a fairly pointed way to demonstrate one of the central issues in our project ... namely, that very bad things have happened to people who essentially played by the rules.

So they told me to go ahead and include my own experience in the report I was preparing about the gamesmanship of certain banks and service providers. They also felt it would be too much of a conflict for me to testify before a grand jury and to stay on the story, so I declined the invitation to testify (for now).

Knapp said he hopes to straighten out his problem. He does have title insurance, which could help.

It is a very weird spot to be in. This might be the most ambitious project our I-Team has ever taken on, and we've all been excited to work on something so far-reaching in our community, but I had no idea it would end up hitting so close to home...literally.

The lesson here is that people who played by the rules, bought homes from foreclosure sales and paid their bills may still lose their homes because of corrupted titles. Knapp bought his home three years ago and had no idea these problems were waiting for him in the files.

Using Multimedia to Tell the Story

KLAS told these stories on TV and also used the station's website and social media to spread the news and drill deeper.

The station wisely built a big spash page for this project, loading it with stories, resources and links as the investigation unfolds. The station provides links to agencies than can help people who are in foreclosure trouble. The website shows maps of the hardest hit ZIP codes and explains why the federal government's program that was supposed to help homeowners who were "underwater" has not helped.

I have to admit I find it a little creepy to see the "stop foreclosure sales" ads on the same page as all of the fraud stories.

No Remedy

While KLAS has posted tons of resources online to help viewers understand the problem, nobody has found a solution to prevent it just yet.

"The Recorders Office accepts documents, they do not verify them," McCarty said. "We have companies in California, Minnesota and Texas filing documents to foreclose here. I don't know how you would check it. At some point somebody at the state or federal level will have to demand they start providing the paperwork they are supposed to provide. It is partly what we have been struggling with ... what to tell people."

"It is happening on some scale in every community," McCarty warns. "Here we happen to be ground zero for all of it. Everything we are seeing there is no reason to believe it is not happening where you live. Journalists should go to the local clerk's office and see if robo-signing is happening there."

McCarty says problems only get worse when homeowners do nothing after getting a threatening letter from a lender. "People put their heads in the sand because they get so scared and overwhelmed by the paperwork coming from the bank." Instead, they should take advantage of free resources available in every community.

Public Service But Not Ratings Buster

The first installment of the investigation ran on every Monday newscast: 4 p.m., 5-6 p.m. and 10 p.m. KLAS saw a "nice spike" in viewership that day but it tapered off.  "We have seen a significant spike on Twitter #desertunderwater and a number of the Desert Underwater stories are among the top stories watched during the week on our website," McCarty said.

Half of the top 10 most watched videos on the station's website last Friday were connected to the investigation.

One viewer sent the station a note on Facebook -- the kind of note that journalists print and stick to their cubicle wall:

Correction: This post originally misstated the location of the company MERS.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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