Wells Fargo distributes new settlement agent communication

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Note: Settlement agents are scheduled to be re-evaluated

Wells Fargo delivered a memo entitled “News for Wells Fargo Settlement Agents” on March 23. The first paragraph cryptically announced that future communications will detail the Uniform Closing Dataset (UCD) that will become effective for lenders in 2018.

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For insight into the UCD, review Fannie Mae’s or Freddie Mac’s websites. Briefly, the UCD is going to be a common industry dataset to allow information on the Closing Disclosure to be communicated electronically. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have developed the UCD at the direction of the Federal Housing Finance Agency in an effort to enhance loan quality and consistency through uniform loan date standards. Stay tuned for more information on this topic and lenders gear up to comply.

The Wells Fargo memo also touted continued expansion of settlement agents who are using Closing Insight™.  Settlement agents who are just getting started were asked to take advantage of the support available at RealEC’s Closing Insight Resource Center at http://www.closinginsightresourcecenter.com or to contact the company at CISupport@realec.com or 800.893.3241. I encourage all South Carolina closing attorneys to get up to speed on this system as soon as possible.

The serious news from Wells Fargo, however, relates to a new effort to evaluate settlement agents.

The memo warned that Wells Fargo will evaluate the population of settlement agents who have closed loans within the past twelve months for problems such as missing documents, execution errors and other frequent problems that require curative work. As a result, settlement agents may receive letters indicating they are being removed from Wells’ list of approved settlement agents.

Processes are in place, however, to accommodate the customer’s choice for a settlement agent who is not on the approved list. Apparently, a new approval process will be instituted, but no detail on this process is provided.

house made of cashThe memo further indicates that attorneys’ ability to act as counsel for customers will not be impacted.  I don’t read this last directive to mean that attorneys who are not on the approved list will be in a position to close loans. They will only be in a position to dispense legal advice, if I am interpreting this correctly.

Settlement agents with questions are encouraged to communicate with Wells at WellsFargoSEttlementAgentCommunicatons@wellsfargo.com. I urge anyone who is interested in continuing to close Wells Fargo loans to hang onto this information.

Finally, the memo is requesting acknowledgement of Master Closing Instructions from all active and approved settlement agencies. Requests for this acknowledgement are coming from Wells Fargo in the form of e-mails to settlement agents. Please respond!

All lenders are beginning to hold settlement agents to higher standards. South Carolina closing attorneys are encouraged to stay abreast of changes and train, train, train staff members.

And, as always, contact your title insurance companies for insight into these matters.

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One of President Trump’s first official actions affects housing

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The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) announced on January 9 that it planned to reduce mortgage insurance premiums effective January 27. Mortgage insurance protects lenders from borrower defaults and is common where the down payment is less than 20%.

The Democratic view of this issue is that sufficient reserves and four years of economic growth allowed the FHA to pass along some modest savings to consumers. Additionally, the move was viewed as an attempt to help first-time and lower income home buyers to access the market at a time when mortgage rates were rising.

The Republican view is that such reductions put taxpayers at risk by decreasing the funds the FHA has to deal with mortgage defaults. In other words, taxpayers might be at a greater risk for footing the bill for another bailout if FHA’s reserves were reduced.

President Trump’s advisors criticized the Obama administration for adopting new policies as it prepared to leave office. During Dr. Ben Carson’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), FHA’s parent agency, he expressed disappointment that the cut was announced so late in President Obama’s term.

On January 20, shortly after he was sworn in, as one of his first substantive actions, President Trump undid this new policy before it took effect by signing an executive order.

HUD then issued a letter stating that more analysis is needed before changes are made, and the rates will remain the same for the time being.

It appears industry groups may have differing opinions on whether President Trump’s executive order will affect home buying. Will this action reduce opportunities for first-time buyers? Or will it eventually allow FHA’s reserves to be increased to a point where it can offer more services to borrowers? Industry groups will continue to weigh in, and this blog will continue to keep South Carolina dirt lawyers posted on developments.

New DOI rule: SC title insurance agents must be fingerprinted (Lawyers included!)

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Listen up, South Carolina dirt lawyers!

All title insurance agents must be fingerprinted for their next license renewals! The Department of Insurance has passed a new rule, effective January 1, 2017, requiring fingerprinting for all resident producers.

The DOI published a bulletin which you can read here. South Carolina Law Enforcement Division has established a contract with IdentoGo by MorphoTrust to handle the fingerprinting process. All title insurance agents will need to go to this company’s website, www.IdentoGo.com, to set up an appointment to be fingerprinted. Your zip code will be used to find the most convenient location.

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It is important that you do not wait until the month your license renews to begin this process. The bulletin advises that scheduling and processing may take up to ninety days. The cost for fingerprinting is $50.50.

Every lawyer’s first question is going to be, can’t they use my fingerprints from my Bar application?  The answer, we have been told verbally, is absolutely not. The DOI is emphatic that it will not accept fingerprinting from any other agency nor any other vendor. Every lawyer’s second question is going to be, does this apply to my staff members who are licensed agents?  It does.

Nonresident producers are not required to be fingerprinted.

As a reminder, licenses are renewed in your birth month. If you were born in an odd-numbered year, your next renewal will be in 2017.  If you were born in January or February of an odd-numbered year, you may be late if you haven’t already begun this process.  For those born in even-numbered years, you are safe until 2018.

Good luck!  Call your title insurance company if you have questions or need assistance.

Just in Time for Halloween, SC Supreme Court Declines Frightening Request to Compel Random Lawyer Trust Account Audits

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The South Carolina Supreme Court amended the rules that govern lawyer discipline on October 25.* The big news here is not the very minor amendments that were adopted but rather the major requested amendments the Court declined to adopt.

The Commission on Lawyer Conduct and the Commission on Judicial Conduct proposed a rule amendment that would have imposed mandatory random audits of lawyer trust accounts. Without comment, the Court declined to adopt this rule change after “careful consideration”.

The Court also declined without comment an amendment that would have required a new position, a presiding disciplinary judge to act as a hearing officer to preside over disciplinary and incapacity hearings.

I have no idea why the Court made these decisions, but my guess is that the motivation revolved around the additional funds that these proposals would have required.

*Appellate Case No. 2015-0002336

CFPB Structure Held Unconstitutional in PHH Case

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Don’t get excited; this shouldn’t change much for SC dirt lawyers.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously on October 11 that the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau allows its director to wield too much power.

This highly publicized case began when PHH Corp. was ordered by CFPB Director Richard Cordray to pay $109 million in restitution resulting from illegal kickbacks to mortgage insurers pursuant to Section 8 of RESPA. An administrative law judge had ordered a $6 million penalty at the trial level, but Director Cordray apparently wanted to set an example and ordered the “ill-gotten gains” to be disgorged. The trial court had limited the violations to loans that closed on or after July 21, 2008. Director Cordray applied the fines retroactively.

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PHH brought suit, arguing that the CFPB is unconstitutional because Director Cordray has the sole authority to issue final decisions, rendering the CFPB structure to be in violation of the separation of powers doctrine. The petition stated, “Never before has so much authority been consolidated in the hands of one individual, shielded from the President’s control and Congress’s power of the purse.” The petition argues that the Director is only removable for cause, distancing him from the power of the President, and is able to fund the agency from the Federal Reserve’s operating expenses, distancing him from Congress’s power to refuse funding.

The Court agreed. It wrote, “Because the Director alone heads the agency without Presidential supervision, and in light of the CFPB’s broad authority over the U.S. economy, the Director enjoys significantly more unilateral power than any single member of any other independent agency.”

The restriction that the Director can only be removed “for cause” was severed, giving the President the power to remove the Director at will. This decision effectively makes the CFPB an agency of the Executive Branch rather than an independent agency.

The Court did not agree with Director Cordray imposing the huge fine retroactively. The Court explained:

“Put aside all the legalese for a moment. Imagine that a police officer tells a pedestrian that the pedestrian can lawfully cross the street at a certain place. The pedestrian carefully and precisely follows the officer’s direction. After the pedestrian arrives at the other side of the street, however, the officer hands the pedestrian a $1,000 jaywalking ticket. No one would seriously contend that the officer had acted fairly or in a manner consistent with basic due process in that situation. Yet that’s precisely this case. Here, the CFPB is arguing that it has the authority to order PHH to pay $109 million even though PHH acted in reliance upon numerous government pronouncements authorizing precisely the conduct in which PHH engaged.”

It is not likely that this landmark decision will make any changes in our current closing practices. The Court stated specifically that the ongoing operations of the agency will not be affected. The Court vacated the CFPB’s order and remanded the case for further proceedings. We might also see an appeal. Regardless, the CFPB is still in charge of the closing process, and all the rules remain in place.

New Settlement Agent Communication from Wells Fargo

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Seller CD must be provided to Wells prior to disbursement

Wells Fargo communicated with its settlement agents (closing attorneys in South Carolina) by memo dated September 22. In case you missed it, you can read it in its entirety here.

The biggest news is that Wells will now require a copy of the seller Closing Disclosure along with the other documents required prior to disbursement. Apparently, receipt of the seller CD has been a challenge, necessitating the procedural modification.

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Another challenge has been the process for handling changes to the borrower’s CD. The memo stated that any changes known prior to closing, including changes to the closing numbers, the closing date and the disbursement date, must be communicated to the Wells Fargo closer.  Wells Fargo’s closer will provide an updated borrower CD and any other updated documents for closing.

Any changes detected at or post-closing should be communicated to:  SAPostClosingCommunications@wellsfargo.com.

The memo also discussed the phased rollout in progress for delivering training materials and other support for the use of Closing Insight™.  We encourage closing attorneys to read and comply with this information to avoid being left out when this process is fully implemented.

Ransomware: A Scary Prospect for Dirt Lawyers

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The Cyberdivision of the FBI is serious about ransomware!  An FBI speaker last Friday at the SC Bar’s excellent tech seminar, an annual seminar I highly recommend for solo and small firm lawyers, emphasized awareness and employee training are critical to prevent data losses in your operation.

Ransomware is a form of malware that is most often delivered through spear phishing e-mails. Spear phishing is a type of e-mail fraud that seeks unauthorized access to confidential data. Ransomware is what it sounds like. Once the fraudster gains access, your system is locked down, and money is demanded to provide access. You have to pay for your own data!

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“H4ck3rz R Us, how can I help you?”

The FBI recommends prevention, business continuity and remediation, but suggests that there is no guarantee of prevention even with the most robust controls in place. Methods of prevention include:

  • Provide extensive awareness and training for your staff.
  • Use strong anti-virus and anti-malware solutions that are set up to update automatically.
  • Regular scans should be conducted of the anti-virus and anti-malware solutions.
  • No user should be assigned administrative access unless that access is absolutely needed.
  • Those with administrative accounts should only use them when necessary.
  • Keep access to a minimum. If a user only needs specific files, he or she should not have access to other files.
  • Ask your IT professionals to implement controls to avoid common ransomware techniques.

But since prevention is not guaranteed, the most attention should be paid to business continuity and remediation. In short, back up your data regularly and regularly verify the integrity of the backups.  Secure backups. Ensure backups are not connected to the computers and networks they are backing up.

The FBI does not endorse paying a ransom to the fraudsters and teaches that paying the ransom does not always ensure regaining access to data.

The FBI encourages victims to contact a local FBI office immediately to report a ransomware attempt and to request assistance. Victims are also encouraged to report cyber events to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.ic3.gov.)