Angela Iannelli returned home one day in October to find her house ransacked, doors padlocked and pet parrot Luke gone.
"I cannot walk into my house by myself. … I tried it one time by myself, went over, walked in, but the whole time I was jumping like somebody was behind me and I just started shaking," Iannelli of Gibsonia, Pa., said.
But it wasn't a burglar. It was Bank of America. The bank had repossessed her home even though the mortgage was up to date.
Her fate, an accidental foreclosure, or wrongful lockout, is becoming more common with major banks as foreclosure rates rise, experts say.
Iannelli, 46, is suing the bank, noting in court papers the serious destruction done to her house, including "cutting various water lines and electric wiring, damaging plaintiff's furnishings and carpets."
"If you or I had done to Bank of America, what Bank of America did to my client we'd be in prison for 10 years," Michael Rosenzweig, Iannelli's lawyer, said.
Iannelli, who eventually recovered Luke, said it took her six weeks to get the bank to clean up the house she has owned for 20 years.
Bank of America apologized, saying: "We will move quickly to review the allegations … and consider any hardship that resulted."
Dan Frahm, a spokesman for Bank of America, said the company has "zero tolerance" for these kinds of incidents.
There were more than 300,000 foreclosure notices last month, down 2 percent from January but up 6 percent from February 2009, according to a report released today by RealtyTrac Inc.
As the number of foreclosures increases across the country, experts say, so do mistakes, such as mixing up names and addresses as they are passed from department to department.
The owners of a St. Petersburg, Fla., home claimed their belongings were cleaned out, despite paying for their home with cash, the St. Petersburg Times reported.
In Galveston, Texas, the power was shut off at a vacation home, resulting in 75 pounds of spoiled salmon and halibut for the owner, according to the Galveston County Daily News.
A pool in an Orlando, Fla., home was even drained after an alleged wrongful lockout. A neighbor told WFTV that it looked as though "the army came up and took over the house."
James Hagerty, a reporter who covers housing and mortgages for The Wall Street Journal, said, "I think this kind of embarrassing situation does help galvanize the banks to try harder. ... Gradually, the banks are going to get better at handling these cases."
Meanwhile, homeowners can do little to protect themselves against accidental foreclosures. But Bank of America said it is working on the problem and has mandated a strong system of procedures for contractors, including additional training and establishing a 24-hour hotline for homeowners.