MORTGAGE FRAUD IS RAMPANT IN CHICAGO…
Mortgage fraud thrives in good and bad times
Scams on the rise even as communities, law enforcement ramp up efforts
CHICAGO — The house on the 53rd block of South Wood Street in Chicago’s Back of the Yards doesn’t look like a $355,000 home. There is no front door and most of the windows are boarded up.
Public records show it was sold in foreclosure for $25,500 in January 2009, then resold for $355,000 in October. In between, a $110,000 mortgage was taken out on the home, supposedly for renovations. This June, the property went back into foreclosure.
To Emilio Carrasquillo, head of the local office of non-profit lender Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago (NHS), the numbers don’t add up. He believes this is a case of mortgage fraud.
It may not make the blood boil like murder or rape, but mortgage fraud is a crime that cost an estimated $14 billion in 2009 and could be hampering an already fragile recovery in the housing market. The FBI has been fighting back, assembling its largest ever team to fight the scams. They have their work cut out for them, though, as a tsunami of foreclosures is making classic scams easier and spawning new ones to boot.
"There’s no way any property in this neighborhood should sell for that kind of money," said Carrasquillo, standing outside the house on Wood Street in this poor, predominantly black area of Chicago’s South Side. "Even if it was in great condition."
Carrasquillo has identified a number of properties in Back of the Yards that sold for between $5,000 and $30,000 last year and then came back on the market for up to $385,000. He said property prices are being artificially inflated, allowing fraudsters to walk away with vast profits and making it harder for honest local people to buy a home.
Mortgage fraud takes many forms, but a well-organized scam frequently involves a limited liability company (LLC) or a "straw buyer." In this scheme, fraudsters use a fake identity or that of someone else who allows them to use their credit status in return for a fee. The seller pockets the money the buyer borrows from a lender to pay for the home. The buyer never makes a mortgage payment and the property goes into foreclosure.
Back of the Yards was hit by fraud during the housing boom and Carrasquillo says the glut of foreclosures is now making it easier for scammers to pick up properties for a song and flip them for phenomenal profits.
Drug dealers and gang members have taken over abandoned houses, many adorned with spray-painted gang signs. Prior to touring the area, Carrasquillo attached two magnetic signs touting the NHS logos on his minivan’s doors to show he is not a police officer. He said he also prefers touring in the morning, as drug dealers and "gangbangers" tend not to be early risers.
"These properties are just going to sit there, boarded up, broken into and a magnet for crime," he said. "And that makes our job of trying to stabilize this neighborhood so much harder."
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a report released on June 17 that suspicious activity reports related to mortgage fraud rose 5 percent in 2009 to around 67,200, up from 63,700 the year before. The number had tripled from 22,000 in 2005 witih the amount of reports for the first three months of 2010 hitting nearly 38,000.
"We don’t see the number declining while foreclosures remain so high," said Sharon Ormsby, section chief of the FBI’s financial crimes section.
Robb Adkins, executive director of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, is known as U.S. President Barack Obama’s financial fraud czar. He describes mortgage fraud as "pervasive" and fears it is exacerbating the nation’s real estate woes. "That, in turn, could act as an anchor on the economic recovery," he said.
For the housing market to recover, potential homeowners need confidence in home prices and investors need confidence to get back into the secondary mortgage market, Adkins explained.
Since the subprime meltdown, a wide variety of scams have come to the fore. They include big cases like that of Lee Farkas, the former head of now bankrupt mortgage lender Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Corp, charged in June with fraud that led to billions of dollars of losses. The scheme involved the misappropriation of funds from multiple sources, including a lending facility that had received funding from Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas.
That appears to be the scam of choice. On July 22, for instance, seven defendants were indicted in Chicago in a $35 million mortgage fraud scheme involving 120 properties from 2004 to 2008 using straw buyers. Of the half dozen properties listed in the indictment, two were in Back of the Yards.
In the mid-2000s, the availability of easy money, poor due diligence by lenders and low- or no-documentation loans, acted as a magnet for fraudsters, who used identity theft and other scams to bag large sums of cash.
"During the boom it was almost like people in the real estate market could do no wrong," said Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. "As ever more money rushed in, it attracted a lot of people who engaged in shady behavior."