Jan. 22, 2009 -- In a revealing example of what she says the average homeowner faces, a California Congresswoman spent more than two hours on the phone trying, without success, to find someone at the Bank of America who could help a struggling constituent modify his mortgage payments. ABC News "Nightline" cameras were rolling as Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Ca.) was repeatedly put on hold for long stretches, disconnected, transferred to extensions that did not work and ultimately switched to a recording which directed her to the bank's website.
"The average American trying to negotiate a loan modification will not be able to get it done," said Waters. "It will be impossible for them to get in touch with the right person, and even if they get in touch with a so-called counselor, they have a cookie cutter kind of direction that they go in."
While the federal government and banks say they're trying to help homeowners avoid foreclosure through various help lines and more, an ABC News investigation has found that the process of reaching out for help can be disorganized and frustrating, hardly consumer friendly, even when a prominent member of Congress is on the line.
To prove her point, Waters agreed to let "Nightline" listen in on her attempts to contact her constituents' lenders on behalf of homeowners with nowhere else to turn.
"Most of the day was spent trying to trace down the right person or the right department to deal with the loan modification," said Waters. "It was awful."
The Beards of Los Angeles are a retired couple who are not even behind on their mortgage payments, but they, like many others, are struggling to keep up. When Waters offered to call Bank of America on their behalf, it turned into a two hour ordeal.
Waters was met first with a recording that many callers have heard before, "all representatives are currently assisting other customers, please hold and your call will be answered in the order in which it was received."
Congresswoman Continues to Hold...
Waters was on hold for ten minutes before an operator finally came to the line. Because the Beards were not behind on payments, just looking for a modification, Waters thought the call would be easy. But it wasn't.
First she was transferred to another department, then put on hold for three more minutes, and then she was disconnected, all while Mr. Beard was listening in.
"That's what I usually get when I call them," he said. "They say they're going to transfer me and when they transfer me, the line goes dead."
Undeterred, Waters called Bank of America again. This time the extension the bank had given her did not work.
So, for a third time, 49 minutes after she first dialed the bank, the congresswoman called the 800 number once again and was greeted with more recordings, more music.
"This is absolutely horrible," she said while holding the line.
On her fourth try, Waters was directed to yet another department, and then transferred to hardship assistance. But when she explained the Beards' situation to the agent in that department, she was told that because they hadn't yet missed a payment, she needed to call the refinancing department.
Almost two hours after her first attempt to reach a loan officer, Waters was finally transferred to the refinancing department -- where she was greeted with a recording and then cut off.
"Oh my goodness," Waters remarked. "Well, what they [the recording] just said is go to your computer and fill out info to see if you qualify. They don't check to see if you have a computer and they don't come back on line."
The Bank of America says it does a good job and is almost always quick to respond to calls.
"On average one to two minutes," said Steve Bailey, who heads the loan division of Bank of America. "In terms of once you are waiting for a cue from an agent, it takes one to two minutes to get through to somebody. Certainly if we are urgently wanting to speak to people we don't want them to wait 20, 30 minutes on hold just to talk to us."
Bank of America Apologizes
Bailey offered an apology to Waters and the Beards for the process they went through saying that's absolutely not the way Bank of America wants things to go.
But the congresswoman believes her experience was typical.
"Anybody witnessing what I was going through could see that I got pretty aggravated, and that I got upset about the basic inconvenience of the so-called system that they have, the lack of responsiveness, the inability to get anything done," said Waters.
Carol and Dave Harper of Los Angeles are behind on their mortgage payments and face possible foreclosure. Mr. Harper is recently disabled. Since last summer the Harpers have been trying without success to get IndyMac bank to modify their mortgage so they can make their monthly payments.
"We worked hard for this," Mrs. Harper told ABC News." He worked until he couldn't work any longer. I can't do it any more. I don't know what I'm going to do if these people take my home. I have nothing else."
Mrs. Harper says her calls to Indymac and multiple visits to bank counselors have resulted in nothing more than a six-month runaround.
"I've called. I've been on the phone so much it's pathetic," said Mrs. Harper. "It's hard. I'm at a point where I don't know where else to go."
When Waters attempted to reach Indymac on behalf of the Harpers it took her four minutes to get through all the recorded messages, prompts, and music to finally speak to a real person. Though once Waters identified herself she was quickly transferred to the public relations department. Despite her VIP-treatment, however, the Harpers still have not been able to get the bank to help them.
IndyMac told ABC News that the Harpers' case is too complex to handle through the call center and that the bank is now trying to help them.
Waters says her experience is further evidence that the lenders have created, but are not helping to solve the mortgage crisis.
"I think what we have discovered speaks for itself. They're not trying to help people do loan modifications," she said. "They put these products out on the street. They had brokers and salespersons out there signing people up because they really didn't have to keep them. They had investors and they securitized and packaged these things and sent them up to Wall Street."