When Brian Carlson, 52, left his Cornville, Ariz., home last summer to go to San Diego to receive treatment for Parkinson's disease, he took pains to make sure that the house he shared with his wife would be well taken care of, with both a gardener and a friend regularly checking in.
But within 10 days, a contractor for Carlson's mortgage lender, Wells Fargo Financial, broke into the home — claiming it was abandoned — and proceeded to change the locks and "winterize" the property by turning off the water and putting antifreeze in the pipes.
The house was left with a shattered window and the contents of Carlson's toolbox dumped on the floor, he says. In addition, shelves in the garage were disassembled and knobs on the home's air-conditioning unit were broken, rendering the cooling and heating systems useless.
"I was shocked. I had no idea why they would do that to our house," says Carlson. "We never missed a payment."
Carlson's not alone. Andrew Garcia, a North Dartmouth, Mass., attorney who's now representing Carlson, says he has nearly 40 clients and prospective clients across the country with similar experiences.
The reasons for the seizures vary, Garcia says. Some occur because of poor record keeping by banks. In other cases, homes are in the foreclosure process but are seized without following proper legal procedures.
"These contractors come in and they say no one's here so it's abandoned and they seize it," says Garcia. "This is like a 'shoot first, ask questions later' mentality."
Sometimes the server or bank gives improper instructions. In Carlson's case, the trouble likely started when he called Wells Fargo Financial to ask about the possibility of a short sale.
Based on that call, "we did believe the customer had permanently vacated the home," says Wells Fargo spokeswoman Veronica Clemons. "Once we learned otherwise we immediately reversed everything."
Now living in Escondido, Calif., Carlson sold the house but is considering suing those responsible for seizing it, an experience that he says changed him and his wife, Jewles.
"It's unnerving," Carlson says. "We have fear knowing that people can come into a home without a court order and do this sort of thing."
Michelle Diament is a frequent contributor to the AARP Bulletin.