By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein yesterday announced the formation of a task force linking federal, state and local agencies in the fight against mortgage fraud, a group whose goals will include seizing assets from scam artists and paying restitution to victims.
"None of our agencies alone has the resources to be able to confront this crisis," Rosenstein said at a news conference in Baltimore. "But working together, we think we've been very effective at targeting some of the significant offenders in the mortgage fraud industry here in Maryland."
Such frauds come in many forms; a common scheme targets homeowners who are facing foreclosure by falsely promising to help them keep their homes. Prince George's County has the largest number of foreclosures in the state, officials said.
The task force aims to fight a "tide of misery that's been brought upon homeowners" across the state, said Glenn F. Ivey, the state's attorney for Prince George's.
"The American dream has been under assault for some time now," he said. "This task force represents the counteroffensive, the coordinated counteroffensive to that attack."
The task force brings together representatives of 17 agencies, including members of the FBI, state regulators, federal housing officials and local prosecutors from Montgomery County, Prince George's and Baltimore. It is similar to three dozen federally coordinated mortgage fraud task forces that have been created nationwide. Amid the continuing financial crisis, the Justice Department has made mortgage fraud and other financial crimes a priority.
Kathleen Skullney, director of the foreclosure assistance project at the Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland, said that with governments stretched for resources and federal aid flooding the economy, criminals will become more active, making the new collaboration particularly timely.
"We are very concerned about the fraud that is already out there, but we are also concerned about a new wave of fraud that will inevitably flow from the money made available by way of mortgage rescue efforts," she said.
In Maryland, eight of the FBI's 32 white-collar crime agents focus on mortgage fraud, and the bureau has recently authorized shifting additional agents to mortgage fraud, officials said.
Among the objectives of the task force:
· To provide training for state and federal investigators to help keep pace with the evolving nature of mortgage fraud.
· To share information across jurisdictions about suspected fraudsters and schemes.
· To track open investigations to ensure that agencies do not duplicate efforts.
· To increase public awareness of such scams and encourage people to report suspicious activity.