INVESTIGATORS: Locked Out of Their Homes; Ohio Company Accused of Taking Property
COLUMBUS (Brooks Jarosz) - Imagine coming home to find your place ransacked and the locks changed and then you find out it was actually a legitimate Ohio company.
ABC 6 Investigators looked at the long list of homeowners left out and locked out. Our investigation uncovered hundreds of complaints and lawsuits accusing Safeguard Properties of critical mistakes.
Safeguard is hired by banks to inspect, clean and secure abandoned and foreclosed homes, but sometimes that company cleared out homes people were still living in.
"My mouth dropped to the floor," homeowner Phil Guinaldo said. "They broke into my house."
It was just the beginning of Phil Guinaldo's frustration over his Canton home and the company Safeguard Properties.
"It's just like somebody coming in and saying, I want this house, I'm going to take it," Guinaldo said.
On the brink of foreclosure, in late 2013, Guinaldo says Safeguard contractors secured and winterized his place. He says they shut off the power to the sump pump and his basement flooded.
At the time, Guinaldo says he worked things out with the bank and even called Safeguard to let the company know he was still living there.
"Safeguard Properties had no business being here," Guinaldo said.
Safeguard Properties is the largest property preservation company in the U.S. It's headquartered in Valleyview, near Cleveland. Banks hire Safeguard to clear out and secure empty and foreclosed homes. Brian Gecewich heads up the company's quality control.
"What we'll do is we'll go through, we'll take pictures of all of the rooms," Gecewich said. "We'll assess all of the damage to the property and provide bids back to maintain the property."
Gecewich says nothing is removed until the bank owns the property and the foreclosure is complete. But our investigation found dozens of complaints filed with the Ohio Attorney General claiming that didn't happen.
"It kept me up nights, many nights," victim Michael Cole said.
Michael Cole was in the process of moving out of his foreclosed home near Cleveland in late 2013. He found his home locked up and everything gone. Now, he only has a long list of what he says was taken, including two dozen VHS tapes of his two daughters.
"I could always go back to those videos and see the kids when they were little and see those times," Cole said. "And they're gone, completely. I'll never see them again."
Cole isn't alone. A Columbus woman is now suing Safeguard, alleging the company broke in and stole her stuff. Attorney Patrick Warner says his client called police thinking someone burglarized her place. Even the Safeguard contractor admitted to cutting the security alarm wire.
"We certainly don't believe it's legal," Warner said. "They have the right to occupy this home and live there until the foreclosure is absolutely complete."
We found more than 150 federal lawsuits filed against Safeguard Properties in 32 states. In Illinois, 200 complaints sparked the state's attorney general to take action. However, Safeguard filed a motion to get it dismissed calling it "wrong on the facts" and "wrong on the law." That case is ongoing.
"It's ridiculous," victim Denise Wilkinson said. "Nobody should have to go through this."
Denise Wilkinson told ABC 6 Investigators she was going to lose her Cincinnati home and was trying to move following the death of her mother and the sudden death of her daughter. She says everything from the obituaries and pictures to clothes and jewelry were taken.
"It's all gone," Wilkinson said. "I mean I had so many letters and beautiful cards from people and it's all gone!"
Now, Wilkinson too is attempting to sue Safeguard. The company wouldn't discuss litigation, however Safeguard did release a statement:
Safeguard protects and preserves tens of thousands of properties in Ohio, and millions across the country, so that vacant properties do not negatively impact surrounding property values, raise safety concerns, or contribute to blight in communities. Issues are minimal in relation to the volume of properties we service; however, when issues occur we take them very seriously. We promptly respond to any inquiries or complaints, regardless if received directly from a homeowner or from a consumer protection office.
Safeguard has a proven record of working with our clients, communities, and civic leaders throughout the country to combat blight brought on by the housing crisis. It is important to us that we are an active participant within the communities in which we work. As the industry leader, we provide best practices to protect and preserve the houses that make up these communities.
"It was like somebody just went in and pulled your heart out," Wilkinson said. "That's what they're doing to all of us."
Now, online petitions and legal action is the only thing some can hold onto, after what they say was Safeguard's life-changing mistakes.
Just in Ohio, there are dozens of complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau and even more with Ohio's Attorney General. We're asked Mike DeWine if he plans to sue Safeguard. We'll keep you posted.
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