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Feds move to help out underwater military homeowners

Federal regulators on Thursday moved to protect underwater homeowners in the military from financial ruin when they move from one base to another.

New guidance warns mortgage servicers that federal agencies will crack down on unfair, abusive or deceptive practices on military members who have received Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders.

Among the practices of concern are failing to give service members accurate information on federal mortgage assistance programs, urging them to waive special protections or advising customers to skip payments in order to get help.

In a corresponding move, the Federal Housing Finance Agency announced the service members being transferred will be automatically approved to sell their home at market rates even if it is lower than their mortgage amount – a move called a short sale.

About one-third of active duty service members are ordered to move each year. And, according to the Department of Defense, 70 percent of the 1.2 million active duty service members do not live in military housing -- with an estimated 185,000 owning their own homes.

In some cases, service members required to move have faced forcelosure, or had to leave families in the old home.

Many of those families live in California, Nevada, Texas, Florida and other areas hardest hit by the real estate market collapse, Holly Petraeus, who oversees service member affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, told msnbc.com.

“I hope that it’s reassuring for them to know that someone is looking out for them,” Petraeus, said. "I hope that when they have those questions when they get their orders that they will be able to go to their servicer and get an answer to their questions -- and get them in a timely manner.”

The guidance calls for the mortgage servicers to train employees about all options for homeowners with PCS orders, and compels them to comply with all existing laws or face additional scrutiny and perhaps referral to law enforcement.

The Federal Reserve, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the National Credit Union Administration and the Office of Comptroller of the Currency issued the guidance.

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