TAMPA — Having identified Florida as ground zero for mortgage fraud in the country, Tampa Bay's top federal law enforcement authorities are concentrating resources to investigate and prosecute as many as 100 cases by the end of the year.
The goal of the surge: restore confidence in the real estate market and send a message that "mortgage fraud won't be tolerated," said A. Brian Albritton, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, which includes Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville and Fort Myers. "This is a huge problem, and a huge problem deserves a huge response," Albritton said Thursday. "I want people to know that law enforcement and the U.S. Attorney's Office are not treating this as business as usual."
Mortgage fraud investigations can take years to get to trial. Albritton's push to expedite that will require each of his 105 prosecutors to handle a mortgage fraud case, in addition to their regular workload.
Steven Ibison, Tampa's FBI special agent in charge, said his agents, along with those from other state and federal agencies, have made the mortgage fraud crackdown a top priority.
"The mortgage fraud problem hits everybody that owns property here in Florida," Ibison said. "Because of the issues here and some of the high-risk mortgages, we've all lost equity in our homes."
Last month, the Justice Department announced its plan to target foreclosure rescue scams and loan modification fraud. The Obama administration has begun efforts to stabilize the housing market through the Making Home Affordable program, aimed at helping eligible homeowners refinance or modify mortgages.
Here in Florida, Albritton and Ibison agree that greed contributed to the crisis.
"We just had such a tremendous real estate market. There was money to be made, and people thought it was going to go on forever," Albritton said.
As the market collapsed and homes went into foreclosure, fraud schemes unraveled, he said.
The 10-month surge, which began in March, represents the first phase of the crackdown.
Investigators will first focus on retailers, those who purchased the homes through fraudulent mortgages.
Albritton anticipates the investigation will then snag professionals such as loan officers and brokers, which could lead to charges against financial institutions.
Kevin Graham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.