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Money Choice customers left homeless, burdened with debt after loan scandal

Photo Peter and Maureen Saciuk are living in a borrowed caravan after selling their home of 23 years. ABC News: Chris Gillette Photo Peter and Maureen Saciuk are living in a borrowed caravan after selling their home of 23 years. ABC News: Chris Gillette

Australia's four major banks are embroiled in a scandal that has left more than 100 people in financial ruin after they were given millions of dollars in loans they could never pay back.

Key points:

• Money Choice and its director Matt George accused of dishonestly organising loans and grossly over-stating customers' incomes and assets

• Conduct has resulted in dozens of families being forced to sell their homes out of fear of repossession

• One former customer says she's lost "everything" including her dream home that she designed herself

Real estate investment company Money Choice and its director Matt George are accused of arranging these mortgages, as well as filling in loan documents including grossly overstating incomes and assets.

A group of former Money Choice customers have written to the big four banks asking them to review the loans, which they estimate amount to nearly $84 million.

The company was banned back in 2013 by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) — however former clients living with severe debt have been left with little redress.

Dozens of families say they've been forced to sell their homes to make ends meet.

One woman who became homeless spent months sleeping under workers' desks in an office after everyone had left for the day.

Photo: Matt George outside the home he lived at with his former partner. Facebook: Matt George

While some victims of Money Choice applied for hardship relief from their banks, many found they were unable to get a long-term solution or have their debts erased.

One couple who were found to have been victims of unconscionable conduct by Money Choice never received the $250,000 compensation awarded to them.

Meanwhile, Mr George drives a black Mercedes C63 coupe from his home in one of Melbourne's most affluent suburbs to his current job at a property company in South Yarra.

For former clients like Aimee Devlin, struggling to get back on her feet after her experience with Money Choice, that is not acceptable.

"I'm disgusted that he hasn't been reprimanded in a way that has stopped him," she said.

The perfect retirement plan turned nightmare

Former Money Choice customers Peter and Maureen Saciuk are living in a borrowed caravan after selling their family home of 23 years.

"Basically he's taken our life away. Our sunset years you should be able to enjoy and reflect on your previous life but he's taken it away," Mr Saciuk said.

Eight years ago, Mr Saciuk earned more than $150,000 a year, living comfortably in Perth's suburbs.

Eager to bolster their assets in preparation for retirement, the pair were introduced to Mr George through relatives. He encouraged them to re-mortgage their home and to purchase three off-the-plan properties.

Photo: Peter and Maureen  Saciuk say they've been left devastated.ABC News: Chris Gillette

At first glance, it appeared to be the perfect retirement plan.

But within a year the couple was struggling to keep up with monthly mortgage repayments of $12,000 for the three loans they had with the Commonwealth Bank, St George, and Advantedge, which is owned by NAB.

Mr Saciuk said by then, they had also encouraged their children to invest in Money Choice, resulting in the family losing millions of dollars.

"I'm totally gutted but I felt guilty," Mr Saciuk said. "I thought it was my fault because I allowed it to go through.

"There were so many times that we were on the verge of saying, 'This doesn't feel right'. But we were talked back into going ahead. Just totally devastated."

'It all just fell apart piece by piece'

Photo: All of Aimee Devlin's belongings are now packed into the back of her car. ABC News: Sarah Farnsworth

For 33-year-old Aimee Devlin, her decision to use Mr George's services has had life-altering consequences: she's been homeless for five years after selling her dream home to keep the banks at bay.

At one point her situation was so dire a friend arranged to let her sneak into an office block and sleep under desks after workers had gone home.

She and her former partner refinanced their home on the advice of Mr George and purchased two off-the-plan properties the broker had personally selected for them.

Photo: Aimee Devlin designed what she said was her "dream" home. Supplied

Photo : She refinanced her home on the advice of Mr George. Supplied

All of the finance was organised by Money Choice using a complex web of bank loans with Advantedge, as well the Commonwealth Bank, the Bank of Melbourne and RAMS.

Within two years, Ms Devlin had lost everything.

"It all just fell apart piece by piece and before you know it, you have nothing left," she said.

"Everything. My house, my job, my relationship, my superannuation. Everything is just gone. It has basically destroyed everything I had.

"I have worked since I was 14, I saved up to buy my own car, then I saved a deposit for a house, then I bought a house and have had all that hard work taken away.

"For six years I have been trying to get back on my feet. You can't even describe that feeling. It's dehumanising."

Mr George also recommended clients set up self-managed super funds to purchase properties. He was not licenced to provide such advice.

"I don't know how [Matt George] managed to get away with everything he got away with, being this broker that is supposed to put forth the best way to get a loan and to help people out in the best way possible," Ms Devlin said.

"He is a trusted agent of the banks, and yet the banks allowed that to happen."

George was banned from working in credit industry for eight years

Money Choice was a one-stop-shop finance and property company that operated between 2005 and 2013.

The group of former clients who have written to the banks say Mr George orchestrated many of their loans.

In 2013, ASIC cancelled Money Choice's credit licence and banned Mr George from undertaking credit activities for eight years, and from providing financial services for three years.

Photo: Matt George dec lined to speak to the ABC.Facebook: Matt George

This followed an investigation that found failures to comply with credit laws, responsible lending shortfalls and instances of unlicensed self-managed superannuation fund advice.

In delivering its decision, ASIC found Mr George had "preferred his own interests to those of Money Choice's clients" and he was not fit to engage in credit activities.

Mr George is now working as the director of sales and marketing at new property company Urban Activation, which was set up six months before Money Choice closed.

"They took his licence away but he's just risen from the ashes in another way," Ms Devlin said.

Couple won compensation, but has never received it

Fifteen people also lodged complaints with the Credit Ombudsman Service (COSL) after their dealings with Money Choice and a positive determination was made for one of the complainants.

Before the other cases could be resolved, Money Choice went into liquidation.

Jon and Maricka Malcolm were the only customers of Money Choice who were able to get a ruling in their favour by the Credit Ombudsman Service.

Photo: Jon and Maricka Malcolm never got their compensation. ABC News: West Matteeussen

It took three years for the Ombudsman to find that they were victims of unconscionable conduct by Money Choice, and the Commonwealth Bank loan that was secured against their home to purchase an investment property should never have been approved.

"Three years it took to get the determination which was eventually in our favour to get $250,000," Mr Malcolm said.

He said once the determination was made, Money Choice "went into liquidation and that was that".

The Malcolms never got their compensation and ended up living in a caravan.

Loans were based on inflated salaries and assets people didn't own

The ABC's Specialist Reporting Team can reveal Money Choice exaggerated salaries, inflated savings and super, and included share portfolios and luxury cars that people simply didn't own.

Other loan applications included letters from accountants that clients had never met.

The loans were mostly for off-the-plan properties that usually sold for more than they were worth. When clients tried to sell their investments to repay the loans, they were left in significant debt.

A majority of the clients were low- and middle-income earners, and the company advertised its business on the promise that investors could build a property portfolio on just $100 a week.

Money Choice customers have told the ABC they were handed blank loan application forms to sign, which were later filled in by either Mr George or his employees and submitted to the banks.

Photo: In 2013, Matt George was banned from undertaking credit activities for eight years. Facebook: Matt George

In certain cases, Mr George's team would apply for several loans on the same property through each of the major banks.

As a result, some of Money Choice's customers ended up with up to three separate loans on the same property and found they were unable to make the repayments.

In one case, a young couple earning a combined annual income of $86,000 received $1 million in loans with the Commonwealth Bank.

Drowning in debt, they were eventually forced to sell their home.

In another case, a pensioner couple with no income and no superannuation received more than $3 million in loans from the four major banks.

Loan applications processed by specific employees in banks

The ABC has also uncovered instances where one former employee of the Commonwealth Bank in Victoria was approving home loans for Money Choice clients across Australia.

This same Commonwealth Bank employee had previously worked at Money Choice, before joining the Commonwealth Bank, where she issued loans for Money Choice's clients.

The bank declined to comment on the former employee.

In another case, Northcote-based RAMS mortgage broker Andrew McClure was banned by ASIC in 2014 from engaging in credit activities for five years after he created and submitted false documents to support home loan applications from Money Choice.

The ASIC investigation found Mr McClure created and submitted false accountant's letters and failed to verify documentation in support of three home loans referred to him by Money Choice

Banks meet Money Choice clients

Some of the banks that loaned to Money Choice clients

In statements, the Commonwealth Bank, ANZ and Westpac each confirmed they were now investigating loans organised by Money Choice.

After being contacted by the ABC, the Commonwealth Bank has met a representative of the aggrieved clients to discuss what happened and conceded they could have done more after Mr George was banned by ASIC.

In a statement, NAB placed the onus on customers, saying they were sent loan documents to verify themselves before approving any loans.

Former ASIC lawyer James Wheeldon said under consumer credit law banks could not hide behind a mortgage broker.

"You clearly have people who were sold loans that they weren't able to satisfy, and this has caused immense hardship for a number of people," he said.

"Banks cannot discharge their responsible lending obligations by saying a mortgage broker did it and therefore we are not responsible."

In a statement, ASIC said it did not believe there were systemic responsible-lending issues at any of the banks based on the evidence it reviewed.

Mr George declined an interview request and did not respond to questions sent to him in writing ahead of publication.

The full story will air on 7.30 tonight

This article was first published by http://mobile.abc.net.au/
Author: Exclusive by Consumer Affairs reporter Sarah Farnsworth and the Specialist Reporting Team's Naomi Selvaratnam
Last modified onMonday, 28 May 2018 23:24

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