As he neared the end of a messy foreclosure process on his Easton, Pa., home, John Barber became a victim. After arranging to sell his home through a short sale, he started packing. However, he found that some prized possessions, including a coin collection and an antique firearm, were stolen when the bank took the premature step of sending a company to secure the home while he still was living there. According to The Morning Call, he called police and filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo, alleging that he found his home “had been broken into, the locks changed, the premises ransacked, and a large quantity of personal property belonging to him was missing.”

According to the report, the case is pending in Northampton County court, with a settlement conference scheduled for later this month, according to Barber’s attorney, Robert Glazer of Easton. For its part, Wells Faro said in a statement that the home was determined to be vacant and was secured by the bank. However, there was no order to remove any personal property.

“Any such alleged action by the third-party contractor would have been inappropriate,” Wells Fargo said. “We hold our property preservation vendors and contractors to high standards of honesty and integrity, and we take any claims like those being made in this case very seriously.”

However, Barber did not include the firms involved with securing the property in his lawsuit. The sole defendant is Wells Fargo, which the suit claims failed to “properly supervise and monitor” the contractor’s and subcontractor’s activities. Easton police closed the case without filing charges, saying that all leads were exhausted.

Cases like this happen more frequently than expected.  Court records show lawsuits have been filed nationwide against banks and mortgage servicers and their property preservation contractors. The suits allege items were stolen, locks were changed and damage was caused. There often is little that a homeowner can do to prevent a property preservation contractor’s visit. Banks and mortgage servicers typically point to clauses contained in most mortgages allowing them to act if a homeowner intentionally damages a property or allows it to deteriorate.

Two years ago, the Illinois attorney general reached a $1 million settlement with the nation’s largest property preservation service, Safeguard Properties.  A lawsuit alleged that Safeguard identified homes to be vacant and instructed its staff to shut off utilities, change locks and remove belongings illegally. Following the suit, Safeguard agreed to change its practices including not removing nonperishable and nonhazardous personal property prior to foreclosure without a court order. In a statement, the company said it “respectfully disagreed” with the allegations. Moreover, the settlement did not include findings of liability or wrongdoing by Safeguard or its contractors.

“We follow industry best practices and adhere to rigorous processes and procedures in performing services on behalf of our clients, while protecting the rights of consumers, and stand by our record of quality.”

In Barber’s case, Safeguard was not used. He told the Morning Call that the locks on his garage door and back door were changed but he got in through the front door.

“My house had been ransacked, was rifled through. They’d been through everything, from my drawers to my closets. Everything.”

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