Among the 50 states, Florida once again is the mother of mortgage fraud.
Soaring rates in the state, specifically of appraisal fraud and misrepresentation, guaranteed Florida retained the No. 1 ranking in 2009 for the fourth year in a row.
An annual ranking unveiled Monday by the Mortgage Asset Research Institute found that, given the volume of residential mortgages it originates, Florida had close to three times the expected amount of reported loan fraud and misrepresentation.
That made Florida No. 1 by a comfortable margin in the country, ahead of the next closest states New York, California, Arizona and Michigan.
"If left unchecked, this (fraud) trend will bankrupt the nation's lending industry and keep investors from ever returning to the mortgage sector, restricting mortgage availability to a privileged few," concludes the MARI report.
Florida's ranked tops in mortgage fraud since 2006, the year the housing bubble burst and the state's economy began to suffer a toxic shock of plummeting home prices and soaring unemployment.
Efforts to stem mortgage fraud, mostly via high-profile federal task forces dedicated to Florida, have earned some publicity but made few serious dents in the problem. In November, for example, federal prosecutors announced a nine-month investigation had nabbed more than 100 defendants and 700 properties from Tampa and Orlando to Jacksonville and Fort Myers. But none of the 22 Tampa Bay area cases involved the kind of major fraud that helped crash the U.S. economy.
The failure to stem Florida's epidemic of mortgage fraud imperils the state's already weak economy.
"The alarming trend from Florida has the potential to threaten that state's housing recovery more than others, given the area's track record in mortgage fraud and excess inventory, particularly in the condominium market," says Darius Borzogi, CEO of Veros, a California company that tracks mortgage trends in 14,000 ZIP codes.
Nationally, reported incidents of mortgage fraud and misrepresentation by professionals increased 7 percent from 2008, a record year, to 2009.
Why did that happen if the housing market by 2009 was in tatters and the volume of mortgages and home sales had declined?
Several reasons, MARI said. New technology and changes in the mortgage market created new opportunities to take advantage of consumers. Fraudsters were also motivated to maintain "lifestyles obtained during the boom period." Consumers who were desperate for the American dream of home ownership remained easy targets. And, MARI said, mortgage fraud was fed by the need for new, creative methods of moving illicit funds.
For example, 2009 saw record foreclosures in several major metropolitan areas, especially in Florida. That led to the emergence of several different types of foreclosure rescue scams.
Let me suggest another reason Florida stays atop the fraud chart. Scam artists recognize the likelihood of getting caught is small by a law enforcement community late to respond and overwhelmed by the sheer size of the problem.
In Florida, the subcategory of appraisal fraud soared in 2009, jumping to 36 percent from 18 percent of reported cases in 2008. No other fraud category in Florida reported such a dramatic increase.
The MARI report says the most common types of appraisal fraud and misrepresentation for loans originated in 2009 involve incorrect (or fabricated) comparables, omitted information affecting a home's value, and value inflation.
Appraisers are under pressure, the report acknowledged, because it's already tough to complete a home sale given the tight market for mortgages and more conservative financial assessments of potential buyers. Appraisers who do not deliver relevant values fear they may lose future opportunities for business. Some agree to "predetermined" valuations. Still others unfamiliar with certain housing markets, may provide appraisals too high or low to be of use in closing a sale.
As the MARI report notes, appraisal fraud was probably plentiful earlier when housing prices were still rising, but few cared enough to report it because it did not jeopardize the purchase.
Without tougher action, the mortgage fraud epidemic now endangers our entire recovery.
Contact Robert Trigaux at firstname.lastname@example.org.