WASHINGTON — It may not have made a big splash on network news or in print, but for real estate it was the equivalent of a declaration of war — a war against mortgage fraud.
Just as security and intelligence agencies were given huge funding boosts by Congress after 9/11, the FBI, the Justice Department, the Secret Service and the U.S. Postal Service have just received a combined $500 million in new funding authority to investigate and prosecute those who engage in mortgage fraud. President Barack Obama signed the legislation May 20.
The targets range from people who lie about their incomes on home mortgage applications to highly organized roving networks of "foreclosure relief" scammers who bilk money out of homeowners seeking mortgage modifications.
Known as the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009, the legislation will fund teams of fraud-busters and broaden federal legal powers to go after individuals and mortgage operations that now get attention only at the state or local levels — if at all. The law also creates a Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission with broad powers to investigate who and what got us into the real estate mess, starting with the subprime boom, Wall Street dealings and more recent bank failures.
How bad is mortgage fraud? The Treasury Department estimates it causes losses to consumers and the mortgage industry of anywhere from $15 billion to $25 billion a year. FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress his agency's mortgage fraud caseload has tripled in the past three years. Reports of potential fraud filed with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network exceeded 65,000 in 2008 — up from about 25,000 in 2005 and just 5,400 in 2002. Officials say the recession and the end of the housing boom have actually stimulated more fraud rather than the reverse.
What do these frauds look like and where are they occurring? The Mortgage Asset Research Institute performs an annual study of the problem for the Mortgage Bankers Association and its 2009 report found that:
• Roughly two-thirds of all frauds involve deceptions at the application stage. For example, some borrowers tell the lender they plan to occupy and use the property as their main residence, but they really plan to turn it into a rental unit. That ruse often gets the applicant a lower rate on the loan, but it violates federal law.
• About 28 percent of frauds last year involved deliberate misinformation about tax returns or financial statements. Fake IRS filings can be created with readily available software programs, and documentation of financial assets can be manipulated as well. Around 21 percent of fraudulent applications contained faked deposit verifications last year.
Some people even go so far as "renting" bank deposits to loan applicants who need to bolster their financial profile. For a fee of $1,000 and up, you can become the "owner" — at least on paper, for a short period of time — of a bank account controlled by the asset rental company. The lender receives a verification of a deposit in your name, but has no idea you're only renting the account.
• Appraisal shenanigans rank high as well, and were involved in about 22 percent of fraud cases in 2008. Appraisal fraud — typically inflated valuations intended to squeeze more mortgage money out of the lender — may well be more commonplace than official statistics indicate. That's because many overvaluations are modest enough to avoid detection, but large enough to get the loan closed, thereby increasing subsequent risk of loss to the lender.
Other widespread forms of home loan fraud include faked employment verifications, misinformation on closing or escrow documents, and credit reports or scores that have been manipulated in some way to get unqualified borrowers approved, or lower interest rates, or both.
According to the 2009 report from mortgage researchers, the top state where a disproportionate numbers of frauds occur was Rhode Island. Next came Florida, Illinois, Georgia, Maryland, New York, Michigan, California, Missouri and Colorado.
With the federal agencies creating prosecution teams devoted to detecting and fighting mortgage fraud, now more than ever scammers are likely to face punishment, likely in the form of a big fine or prison time.
Ken Harney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.