Oct. 11, 2010 -- It's one of the few booming businesses in this bruised economy – companies hired by banks to change the locks and take over homes that have been foreclosed.
But in a growing number of cases, these real estate repo men are showing up before the foreclosure process is done – and sometimes, before a home is even in foreclosure.
Nancy Jacobini was alone in her Orlando home when she heard someone outside her door, trying to break in. She locked herself inside a bathroom and called 911.
"I was very scared," Jacobini said. "I didn't know who it was."
The man trying to break in was a contractor hired by Jacobini's bank, JPMorgan Chase, to secure the property. The bank initially said Jacobini was more than three months behind in her mortgage, and that she had abandoned her home and had cut her utilities.
Jacobini acknowledges she was late with her mortgage payments, but foreclosure proceedings had not begun. And, she added, "My electric is current, it always has been … I'm home all the time."
The bank has now acknowledged it made a mistake.
Jacobini's attorney, Matt Weidner, of St. Petersburg, Fla., said such "bank break-ins" represent yet another example of financial institutions "running amuck" as a consequence of the wave of foreclosures cresting across the country.
This week, the attorneys general of as many as 40 states are expected to launch a joint investigation of allegations that banks cut corners and used fraudulent paperwork to foreclose on some struggling homeowners.
Bank of America last week announced it would temporarily halt foreclosures in all 50 states while it reviews foreclosure procedures.
JPMorgan Chase and GMAC Mortgage have halted foreclosures in 23 states for the same reason. Hundreds of thousands of foreclosures are now in limbo.
"What we have right now is lawlessness across the country. Banks and institutions are circumventing our courts. They're going behind our judges' backs and they are throwing homeowners out on the street out completely improperly," Weidner said.
"Property Preservation" Business Booms
Banks are expected to take over a record 1.2 million homes this year. As the number of foreclosures has grown, so, too has the number of real estate repo men hired by banks to maintain the foreclosed homes and their value.
YouTube videos promoting this "property preservation" and "trash out" work as can't miss business opportunities are luring more and more people into the profession every day.
"Would you like to make $300 to $500 or more a day, running your own business, and being your own boss?" begins one video by foreclosurecleanupcash.com.
"If you answered yes … you could be on your way to owning, running and operating a profitable foreclosure cleanup and property preservation company in seven days with little or no money!"
The website cleanoutsuccess.com boasts how easy it is to make money quickly: "We have yet to find a city where you need a special license to handle these jobs."
That's exactly the problem, said Weidner, who claims financial incentives offered by the banks encourage the property preservation companies to be overly aggressive in dealing with distressed properties.
"These are jack-booted thugs driving around with a pickup truck and a clipboard … kicking down doors. And they are unregulated in most states. This has gotten out of control," he said.
In the Florida community of Punta Gorda, Darlene Decinti and her husband returned home from a trip to care for her sick grandmother to find new locks on the doors. Even worse, their home was ransacked.
"These people called Safeguard Properties broke in … They went through my back window – they cracked the glass," Decinti said.
A judge had entered a foreclosure judgment against the couple, but they are appealing it – and they have the right to remain in the home at least through the end of November.
Their mortgage company had hired Safeguard, the largest of these property preservation companies in the country.
Safeguard told ABC News it would not discuss a specific case but that after a defaulted property has been determined to be vacant, "On the mortgage company's behalf Safeguard will take steps to inspect and maintain the vacant property to keep it secure."
But the Decintis said they had hardly abandoned their home. The grass was cut and everything was tended to.
"A fundamental principle that made this country different than anywhere else in the world was that when you stepped inside your home that truly was your castle. You could feel safe and secure in there. That's being attacked all across America," said Weidner. "Ultimately what my clients want is not money. What they want is their neighbors to understand what's happened to them. And what they want is these banks to understand that this is not permissible."