Last November, President Obama created the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force year to wage an aggressive, coordinated fight against financial crimes. One of the prime focuses we identified at the outset was combating mortgage fraud, and I am joined by several key partners in that fight today: IRS’s Criminal Investigation Deputy Director Sallie Cooper, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Secret Service Criminal Investigative Division Ken Jenkins, FTC Commissioner Edith Ramirez, Housing and Urban Development Inspector General Ken Donohue, FBI Director Bob Mueller, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Chief Postal Inspector Bill Gilligan and Director of the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network Jim Freis.
We are here to announce the results of Operation Stolen Dreams – a three and a half month takedown of mortgage fraud schemes throughout the country.
This operation began on March 1, and to date involved 1,215 criminal defendants nationwide, defendants who were allegedly responsible for more than $2.3 billion in losses. In addition, the operation involved 191 civil enforcement actions through which more than $147 million has been ordered recovered, with still millions more pending court approval. This represents the largest collective enforcement effort ever brought to bear in confronting mortgage fraud. The success of this operation is a direct result of our unprecedented focus not just on federal criminal cases, but also on civil enforcement, recovering funds for victims and increasing cooperation with state and local partners.
The staggering totals from this sweep highlight the mortgage fraud trends we are seeing around the country. We have seen mortgage fraud take on all shapes and sizes – from schemes that ensnared the elderly to fraudsters who targeted immigrant communities. We have seen cases that have resulted in dozens of foreclosures and millions in losses, as well as fraudsters who have bankrupted entire companies and national lenders who were not playing by the rules.
In Miami, just yesterday we unsealed an indictment and arrested two defendants who allegedly targeted the Haitian-American community, often claiming they would assist them with immigration and housing issues, but then instead using victims’ personal information to produce false documents to obtain mortgage loans.
In Chico, California, a prominent home builder, caught with a significant amount of unsold new homes as the housing market cooled, allegedly used straw buyers to sell his houses at inflated prices with undisclosed sales rebates. This scheme inflated prices on other homes in the area, creating artificially high comparable sales and affecting the overall new-home market. To date, thirty-eight of the homes have fallen into foreclosure and ten more have been the subject of short sales – all in one city.
In Detroit, just yesterday we charged several individuals who are part of a more than $100 million, 70-plus person “ghost loans” scheme. The conspirators posed as mortgage brokers, appraisers, real estate agents and title agents and used straw buyers to obtain around 500 mortgages on only 180 properties.
The list goes on and on. The breadth of the fraud is truly astonishing, which is why we launched an unmatched effort to fight it. The President’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force is the broadest coalition of law enforcement, investigatory and regulatory agencies ever established to combat fraud. All of these partner agencies, as well as state and local partners, are working together to ensure that no stone is left unturned when it comes to fighting this kind of crime.
In the past few months, task force members have traveled to cities heavily affected by mortgage fraud to hear from industry insiders and community members on how mortgage fraud has impacted their region. In Phoenix, I listened to the concerns of citizens, and heard first hand about attempts to take advantage of homeowners’ desperation following the collapse of the housing market.
We know that mortgage fraud ruins lives, destroys families and devastates whole communities, so attacking the problem from every possible angle is vital. These schemes are despicable, they are dangerous to our economy and they will not be tolerated.
This takedown is just the latest effort in our ongoing fight. Looking toward the future, the Department of Justice has requested $178 million in our FY2011 budget to fight mortgage fraud, an increase of over $18.4 million. The FBI has over 3,000 pending mortgage fraud cases, almost double the figure from FY08, and those numbers will only continue to grow. Additionally, the task force is working with consumer groups to increase financial literacy and better educate homeowners about warning signs of scams.
Finally, I end with two important messages. First, to homeowners who are struggling to make payments or looking to refinance your homes – there are legitimate government programs out there to help you. Visit StopFraud.gov for resources, and if you suspect suspicious activity, report it. An educated public is one of our most important partners in the fight against mortgage fraud.
Secondly, let today’s takedown send a strong message to any would-be fraudsters: If you prey on vulnerable homeowners or engage in fraudulent conduct, we will find you and we will bring you to justice. You will pay for your schemes.