INDEPENDENCE, Mo. - Imagine returning from vacation only to find everything’s been taken from your home. That’s what Nicole Corum says happened to her in April 2011 at the house she was renting in Independence, Missouri. She’s now filed suit against one of the nation’s largest foreclosure property companies, claiming they illegally entered her home and cleaned out everything she owned.
7NEWS, with our sister station KSHB in Kansas City, found this is not the first time this has happened. We have found similar lawsuits in Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, and Ohio.
In Corum’s case, when she returned to her home she said not only was everything missing, the home itself was damaged. Corum immediately called police thinking a burglar was responsible.
When she spoke with officers, Corum said they told her they visited the home just days earlier after neighbors contacted them when they saw strangers emptying her home.
Nicole said police spoke with the man packing up her things.
“He said, 'Hey I had an order. I work for Safeguard, deal with them,'” Corum said about what the man reportedly told police.
Safeguard Properties is a major property preservation company. The company cleans out and secures foreclosed homes for major banks across the United States.
Baffled because she had a current lease and had paid on time, Nicole said she called and spoke with a Safeguard representative hoping to correct the mix-up and get her property back.
“She said ‘It's all out in the dump. We don't keep that. We don't keep that in storage.' I think that's when it really settled in,” Corum said of her conversation with the Safeguard representative.
Corum said it was really difficult to comprehend everything she owned would never be returned.
“Just to tell my 7-year-old little boy all your toys are gone? It was just awful,” she said.
Corum and two other Kansas City families have filed lawsuits alleging Safeguard Properties illegally entered and cleaned out their homes. All three are represented by Kansas City attorney Tony Stein.
“Imagine having your family heirlooms, things that you may have been given from a grandparent, something that you hold dear, something you want to hand down to your children or whatever and all of a sudden one day all of that is snatched from you,” Stein explained.
In the case of a legitimate eviction, the law varies by state. In Colorado, as in Missouri, a sheriff’s deputy is the only one who can carry out an eviction. However, if the property is vacant, no court order is needed.
Instead of filing eviction papers for each and every property, some contractors make a judgment call about whether a property is occupied. If they think it isn’t, they go in and clean it out.
7News and our sister station KSHB found several memos posted on Safeguard’s own website showing the company has repeatedly received complaints after contractors made the wrong call. Memos from 2003, 2005, 2007 and as recently as 2011 remind contractors to look for signs the property is occupied before entering.
Some of those signs include checking with utility companies to see if the utilities are active and checking with neighbors to see if they know if anyone lives at the address.
One memo from 2003 even states the company will have to make costly settlements because, “the simple fact that unauthorized entry into an occupied property makes Safeguard’s position difficult to defend.”
Stein said the repeated incidents concern him.
"We have seen this happen in 2010, 2011, 2012. This behavior continues to repeat itself and we really have to ask ourselves ‘Why is this happening,’” Stein said.
In several cases, like Nicole’s, neighbors called police. However, officers declined to get involved, calling it “a civil matter.”
"The police are being called and they're not taking out criminal reports. The prosecutors are not getting involved,” Stein claimed.
Stein said that leaves people who were victimized with only one avenue for justice: hire an attorney and fight in civil court.
We contacted Safeguard Properties. The Cleveland-based company declined our request for an on camera interview.
However, a spokeswoman was responsive to our questions about this issue.
Diane Fusco says incidents of error are rare compared to the amount of work the company performs each year.
Fusco said contractors take careful steps to verify the accuracy of the property information before taking any actions. She also said that contractors follow hundreds of policies and procedures to assure accuracy, quality, and timeliness. Fusco also said that Safeguard complies with local, state and federal laws that apply to vacant, defaulted and foreclosed properties.
We asked for clarification of what policies and procedures the company has in place to keep incidents like this from happening. Fusco declined to clarify or provide those procedures, saying the company considers them proprietary information.