Lenders haunted by the ghost of St George
The banks have the government pretty well licked, as you know. Tame as can be, those assorted regulators, bureaucrats and ombudsmen.
But will somebody please tell the Tuggerah Lakes Police that the banks are above the law? There seems to be a misapprehension by the local constabulary that the banks are somehow subject to the laws of the Commonwealth. It is a mix-up which will surely be remedied in short order.
In the interim, detectives from Tuggerah Lakes Police Station are investigating St George. And Westpac, which owns St George, has begun to assist. They didn't like it at first, and refused to comply with a magistrate's warrant, then dragged the chain on a judge's warrant but, when confronted by police with a contempt of court rap, lapsed into avid co-operation.
Unfortunately, the man they blame for the missing loan documents at the centre of the Tuggerah Lakes police case ... well, he does not appear to exist, at least on the police databases. We are afraid to say it, dear readers, but it looks as though Westpac is haunted. Today we can reveal, exclusively, the Ghost of St George.
Our story begins just before Christmas in 2011, when St George customer Caroline Baker agreed, reticently, to go guarantor for her son-in-law in a real estate purchase.
Disaster struck. Just a few days later, her daughter called. The husband had left her. Baker raced down to the local St George branch at Bateau Bay and tried to stop the loan. It was too late. The funds had already been accessed by the son-in-law, said the St George teller. In passing, the teller mentioned a separate $210,000 mortgage.
"You do know you have a mortgage, don't you?" the teller asked. "That was the first I had heard of it," Baker says. She asked for copies of her loan documents, and was duly charged for the pleasure.
The loan documents related, not to the 2011 guarantee, but, as it turned out to the purchase of a house for her daughter at Boomerang Beach four years earlier.
Baker says she thought she was signing a property settlement, not a loan, and as the son-in-law must have been funding it, she was blissfully unaware she had a mortgage. Yet, even to this day, she awaits a full copy of her loan application form.
"They [St George] appointed a man to look after me, a senior manager internal dispute resolution," she says. "He kept me going with platitudes for seven or eight months. He did eventually send me the LAF [loan application form] - but not page nine."
Baker found almost a year later that the loan had been sold to somebody else in Western Australia, a Wayne Jessup. She managed to get the mystery page from Jessup via a freedom of information request.
"When I got it I was beyond furious, because all the details were wrong. The asset values were inflated. And [it said] I was divorced. I've been married for 50 years!
"And I saw that my signature was on it but I never remembered signing it. It looked cut and pasted."
Four months earlier, in August last year, Caroline Baker and her husband James were invited to Westpac's plush Kent Street eyrie above Sydney Harbour.
Legal and dispute resolution people showed them "two whole tables of documents".
"Our signatures were on them ... I was in a state of shock," Baker says.
"I told her that we hadn't signed them but I didn't have a chance to ask further questions because we were ushered out. They sat us down in the foyer and suggested we go to FOS [the Financial Ombudsman Service, which is funded by the banks]. So we went to FOS."
FOS said it would be a "very long time" before the request could be handled as things were busy.
The Bakers are still chasing pages 11, 12 and 13 of their application. They tried St George, they tried Westpac, they tried ASIC (and received a form letter), and they tried APRA (which said it was not its thing).
They tried writing to Westpac chief Gail Kelly. A response from someone said that as it was being investigated by FOS, there was nothing they could do. So they tried the police.
A few weeks ago, Detective Sergeant Tania Blondeau from Tuggerah Lakes police rang the Bakers and began investigating. Blondeau told Caroline Baker she was looking into the husband and wife loan broker/conveyancer team behind the Boomerang purchase in 2007 but that the bank was not being helpful.
When, after a contempt of court threat, the information finally arrived from Westpac, it was still missing the pages from the LAF. "They were taken by an employee and they had no idea where he or the documents were," Baker says.
Whatever the truth of the Baker situation - and Westpac has not ruled out ghosts - this is one of thousands of apparent loan document frauds. Like a thousand others, Caroline Baker had done the "ring-a-ring-a-rosie" of FOS-ASIC-banks and contacted Denise Brailey, whose Banking and Finance Consumers Support Association subsists with zero state or bank funding.
Brailey had 1170 victims in June this year, spread among all the banks, mostly low-doc loans. In most cases, the income figure on the LAF had been increased to justify more credit.
"There is not one clean LAF among them," Brailey says.
It is a systemic problem, bogged down in regulatory stonewalling. Increasingly there are many full-doc loans, such as Caroline Baker's, among them.