Annie Becker still owned her far south suburban home the day a company she'd never heard of changed the locks and shut her out of it. It's also the last time she says she saw a dozen boxes stored in her home, full of valuable possessions.
"All the pictures we had in the family room, all the crosses from my grandparent's coffins, the christening gown. That thing's over 100 years old. My grandmommy was christened in it. You can't put a value on it. It's priceless."
The company Becker accuses of unfairly locking her out of her home and taking her belongings stands accused of doing the same thing to other consumers across illinois. Safeguard, an Ohio company, is a property preservation company, the kind hired by banks to oversee properties headed in to foreclosure. The problem with Safeguard, according to a lawsuit filed this month by the Illinois Attorney General's office, is a pattern of behavior that includes breaking into occupied houses, locking occupants out, and removing personal property. The lawsuit also accuses Safeguard of ignoring what should be obvious clues, like a barking dog inside the home, a car in the driveway, garbage cans, and even an occupant inside.
"When we left , it was locked tighter than a drum. When we got back , the locks were jammed. The only people inside were Safeguard," Becker claims.
Illinois law is clear when it comes to foreclosure: a homeowner cannot be removed from the home until the process is complete.
"It's egregious, egregious behavior," according to real estate attorney George Lattas. "The bank wasn't the property owner. The borrower was. Until the borrower defaulted on the mortgage in a sufficient amount of time, and a mortgage foreclosure can actually be brought. Up until that point, the bank had no right -- either themselves or a third party -- go onto that property."
Becker acknowledges she was going to lose her home. After several applications to modify her mortgage were denied by Bank of America, she says she realized she would not get out from under the debt, and made plans to move on.
But she did not abandon the property. On the contrary, Becker says. To this day, she is paying the utilities and planned to move her belongings from the home after rehabbing her new home in Poplar Grove. Now she wonders if she will ever see those important possessions again.
"This is the stuff that matters. This is my family heritage. This is stuff that goes to my nieces and my son," Becker said.
Safeguard won't comment on the pending litigation, but says it will vigorously defend against the state's charge. The company says it takes reports of damage or error seriously and works to fully investigate the matter and identify and address the root cause.
Bank of America wouldn't say whether it will continue to hire Safeguard, but does say it monitors the company's performance.
As for Annie and Fred Becker, they continue to fight in court to get back their missing items.
"I want them held accountable. I don't just mean Safeguard. I mean Bank of America. I mean every one of these banks that kicks a person when they're down."