On Scams, Mortgage Modification, and the Beauty of Bartering

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Since being laid off eight months ago, Deanna Steuernagel and Shawn Burke have become most disillusioned by the frequency with which they've encountered various scams specifically targeting the unemployed. Unscrupulous greed clearly holds no sympathy for the downtrodden. Considering the months of delay tactics Chase Bank has employed on Deanna's loan modification application, forestalling a decision until she completely depleted her savings, it would not surprise her to receive notice that she doesn't qualify for Obama's Hope Now program because this month she finally defaulted on her mortgage. 


The smell of freshly baked cookies envelops me when Deanna opens the front door of Shawn's modest rental house. Her three kids are spending the night with friends; Shawn's son and roommate (the first the 48-year-old has had since college) are both out of town for the weekend. Taking advantage of an empty house, the couple has planned an evening of low-budget recession recreation--oatmeal raisin cookies and Rummy 500 with two former colleagues. Their friends avoided the axe Nol-Tec Systems brought down in February, so they'll be bringing the beer.

Shawn and Deanna met and started dating at Nol-Tec, where she worked at reception and he was a kind of Shawn-of-all-trades, building and installing the conveyance systems Nol-Tec produces, while also occasionally performing functions of an in-house handyman, resident computer expert, and whatever other tasks demanded.

Since being laid off in a 10 percent reduction of staff, the couple has continued working together in a different sense. Together, they've figured out how to get by despite bleak circumstances--applying for unemployment and researching other forms of available assistance, supporting and encouraging each other in their relentless pursuit of new work, warning each other of scams, cultivating a garden, and becoming masters in the art of bartering.

Over warm oatmeal raisin cookies, Shawn expresses some strong feelings about U.S. government actions in recent years, most particularly in bailing out mega-banks whose methods of operation helped spark the economic crisis, while leaving little guys to bail themselves out. The fact that Deanna has lost hope that Obama's Hope Now program will help save her home from foreclosure fits perfectly into Shawn's view that the banking system screws hard-working individuals for the success of rich executives.

Back in May, Deanna completed and submitted the full packet of paperwork Chase requires from customers applying for mortgage modification. The four times she has called Chase to check on its progress, an agent has informed her that the underwriting department has yet to receive her application because the packet lacks one detail or another. In no instance has Chase sent her a notification requesting further documentation.

When Deanna called last week, again a Chase representative informed her they couldn't forward her application to underwriting because it still lacked two apparently critical details they'd failed to notice sooner. First, though a tax preparer had dated her W-2 when he submitted it to the IRS, Chase could not accept the documentation because the date line next to Deanna's own signature remained blank. Second, Chase required she submit a new statement of her 401K balance, since any increase resulting from slow stock market recovery during the nearly six months they've had her application could affect the decision-making process.

Deanna figures Chase has been fishing for grounds to reject her, but knows they won't find it in her 401K. Since submitting her original application to Chase in May, she has had to cash out the greatly diminished 401K so she could keep up with her monthly mortgage payments. Now that little nest egg has been spent: "I don't have my mortgage payment this month. What am I going to do?"

"Every time I call Chase, I get a different story. I told them I didn't have money to make my October mortgage payment. They said not to worry about foreclosure because I'm already in the system. Do I trust that? No," Deanna says.

"That's the way the system works," Shawn adds. "Like insurance claims: they just delay and delay and delay, trying to wear you out so you just give up. The banks are either looking to delay so long for her situation to change so they can reject her, or to wear her out so they can take her house."

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses. More

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes for a broad array of publications, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog Feed The Masses. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip project for TheAtlantic.com.

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