Government investigators brought charges against 530 people over the past year as part of a nationwide effort to crack down on mortgage rescue scams, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday.
The cases, spearheaded by members of the federal Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, involved a broad array of schemes that victimized more than 73,000 homeowners and caused more than $1 billion in losses, according to Holder.
“These comprehensive efforts represent a historic, government-wide commitment to eradicating mortgage fraud and related offenses across the country,” he told reporters at a news conference Tuesday alongside top officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The announcement marks the latest effort on behalf of state and federal officials to demonstrate their eagerness to crack down on the range of fraud and mortgage-related misdeeds that proliferated during the housing boom and the bust that followed.
Later on Tuesday afternoon, federal officials in Manhattan announced a civil suit against Wells Fargo, accusing the bank of engaging in mortgage loan fraud and misconduct for more than a decade while it participated in a Federal Housing Authority program.
Last week, in conjunction with federal authorities, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a civil lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase, alleging widespread fraud in the way that mortgages were packaged and sold to investors in the lead-up to the financial crisis at Bear Stearns, the now-defunct firm that JPMorgan purchased in 2008. Schneiderman and other officials vowed that more such cases are in the pipeline.
Earlier this year, state and federal authorities signed a $25 billion settlement with five of the nation’s biggest banks over rampant foreclosure abuses. That deal required the banks to reduce loan balances for some homeowners and forced fundamental changes in loan-servicing practices such as forbidding a bank from foreclosing on a borrower while simultaneously negotiating a mortgage modification.
In addition, state attorneys general collectively have brought hundreds of separate mortgage fraud cases.
“Each of these efforts sends the same message,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said. “That when it comes to harming homeowners, no one is above the law.”
At the news conference, FBI associate director Kevin Perkins said that the focus on scams targeting ordinary homeowners has expanded in the wake of the housing bust.
“Distressed-homeowner schemes have displaced loan-origination fraud as the most common type of mortgage fraud in many areas in the country,” he said, adding that two years ago such cases accounted for about 4 percent of the agency’s mortgage fraud cases; today, the number is closer to 20 percent.
Perkins said authorities often went to great lengths in investigating scams, using electronic intercepts and confidential informants, as well as establishing a “mortgage strike force” in Los Angeles, where fraud has proven particularly rampant.
Although officials on Tuesday said their efforts were part of a coordinated, year-long “Distressed Homeowner Initiative,” reporters noted that there was no public announcement of such an effort last year and asked whether the news conference was politically motivated, by touting the administration’s crackdown on fraud weeks before the November election.
Not at all, Holder said.
“We’re reporting on what happened over the past fiscal year,” he said. “That’s what this was about.”
Officials agreed that their efforts can go only so far in stamping out mortgage scams, which have persisted in good times and bad. But they said the cases they have filed have made a meaningful difference.
“It’s a very, very significant problem. Sometimes there’s a whack-a-mole component to it,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. “But I would say in the last couple years we have made very, very significant progress. There are fewer bad guys out there now than there were a couple years ago.”