For mortgage scammers, deed thieves and property flippers, this is the Golden Age.
The chatter in New York, as it is in Washington, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Miami, is of housing riches quickly realized. Prices have tripled in those cities, and 70 percent of Americans now own a home. But for thousands of working-class and poor Americans, the venture into homeownership has brought misery at the hands of the unscrupulous.
"We've never seen so many schemes and such complexity to the fraud," said Sarah Ludwig of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, which has helped lead investigations into predatory lending in New York. "Everyone works to defraud: the broker, the appraiser, the attorney and the inspector. Before a homeowner knows it, they are in way over their heads."
Maria Elena Mateo is one of the victims. The Dominican immigrant wanted only to buy a house with a back yard for her three children and a bedroom for herself. But a lawyer, a real estate agent and an appraiser pressured her into buying an overvalued and uninhabitable home in Brooklyn, according to court papers. She has expended her life savings of $13,000 trying to repair it.
"My kids thought their mommy was getting them a house," said Mateo, 41, tears flowing. "Everything was lies."
Echoes of such homeowner pain can be heard across the nation. Fueled by loose credit and lending standards, a growing number of "subprime" mortgage companies and rogue bands of scam artists are using false appraisals to inflate prices, stripping equity from elderly homeowners and even persuading untutored homeowners to surrender their home deeds.
The FBI's Financial Crimes Report in May noted that mortgage fraud is "pervasive and growing," thriving on "collusion by industry insiders." Suspected major mortgage finance violations reported by financial institutions increased from 4,225 in 2001 to 17,127 last year, and the money lost in such fraud has doubled in the past year.
In California last year, the state attorney general cracked a foreclosure ring that had netted 1,800 victims. In Florida, the FBI targeted "massive . . . mortgage fraud" in Jacksonville. Another federal investigation broke up a $15 million property-flipping scheme in Kansas City, Mo. And the National Consumer Law Center noted that "the entire D.C. region is rife with these scams."
"Housing is supposed to be the great ladder into the middle class," said Steve Tripoli, a fraud investigator for the National Consumer Law Center. "But scam artists fish where the fish are, and now the money is in Americans' homes," he said.
Often the fraud goes lightly punished and scam artists operate in plain sight, government investigators acknowledge. Prosecutors mount few investigations into the mortgage industry, preferring to leave that task to state regulatory agencies. And the firms that engage in questionable practices are expert at avoiding regulation. For instance, these companies often buy homes and resell them themselves -- avoiding the need for a real estate license and state regulation.
Some firms also decline to offer federally insured home loans to their customers. In this way, companies can sidestep regulation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"Larceny is the mother of invention," noted Rick Wagner, a New York City legal services lawyer who has spent a decade pursuing such companies. "The bunco artists are way ahead of the regulatory agencies."
In New York, where the real estate market is superheated and state investigators talk of a thriving "thieves market," state Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer is now investigating three large real estate firms under suspicion of defrauding hundreds of home buyers. But it is difficult to shut down even repeat violators.
In 2001, Spitzer's office forced First Home Brokerage to pay $1.5 million in restitution for home buyers who purchased decrepit properties advertised as "totally renovated." In 2003, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs found that another large real estate company, Better Homes Depot, had taken "unconscionable" advantage of home buyers by inflating prices and failing to make promised repairs. Better Homes paid $600,000 in restitution and fines for bilking dozens of buyers by inflating prices and failing to make repairs.
Both firms continue to operate and draw lawsuits from angry customers who allege fraudulent practices. Eric Fessler, president of Better Homes Depot, pleaded guilty in 1992 to income tax evasion and paying kickbacks to lawyers who referred clients to his former mortgage bank. Since leaving prison, he has continued to make tens of millions of dollars in the real estate business.
"This stuff is old news -- I never admitted anything, and I have thousands of satisfied customers," he said. "From a dollar point of view, it was less expensive to settle than to fight the city."
A decade ago, Jefferson Avenue in working-class Brooklyn was in the throes of a smack-and-crack fever. The avenue is safer now. But middle-class hipsters have discovered its old townhouses, and real estate is the new drug. HUD lists it as a "hot zone" for mortgage fraud.
A large yellow banner hangs off the top of a dowdy walk-up apartment building: "WHY RENT? CASH 4 HOMES. No Down Payment! No Closing Costs!" Neal Faulkner, a 48-year-old who works at a Manhattan hotel, displays a rummy hand of seven business cards he has collected in the past three months from men who want to buy or refinance his house.
"They offer me $2,000 to point out homes for sale," he said. "These same guys convinced my mother to refinance and repair her home -- except that they never made repairs," he said. "She's old and sick and she's got a $170,000 balloon payment at 12 percent interest. They destroyed her wealth."
It is hard to come by precise numbers of those defrauded because -- in New York City or across the nation -- many victims don't realize they have been defrauded or are too embarrassed to step forward. And many sectors of the mortgage industry are not required to report potential wrongdoing.
But interviews with two dozen homeowners, lawyers, mortgage counselors, and city, state and federal investigators suggest there are thousands of victims in New York alone. Disreputable mortgage companies target the elderly because they have built up so much home equity. They target immigrants and renters because they often understand little about buying homes.
Rene Arlain, housing director for the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, not far from Jefferson Avenue, counsels dozens of families who spend 70 percent or more of their income on mortgage payments. "The American dream of homeownership supersedes common sense," Arlain said. "The brokers and mortgage firms know that."
These new homeowners are easy prey. Deed theft is classic bait and switch. "Mortgage rescue" experts persuade overburdened homeowners to "temporarily" surrender the title to their house while an "expert" straightens out the mortgage. The "expert" then resells the house to the homeowner at a vastly inflated price -- or simply evicts the family.
"Some scammers sneak in a deed-transfer document as the homeowner signs a pile of papers," said Ludwig of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. "A family in Queens literally wound up on the street."
Then there is property flipping. Companies buy homes in foreclosure, obtain false appraisals and resell the homes at huge markups. That is how Maria Mateo, the Dominican woman from Brooklyn, was hooked. She was afraid of being priced out of the market until a friend introduced her to an agent who promised to find her a house without a down payment or closing costs.
The agent told Mateo that her credit and income were good enough to buy two homes, according to a complaint filed with HUD. In fact, Mateo had tarnished credit and earned $500 a week. One night, the agent took her to see a house in Brooklyn but told her that she could not go inside yet.
Mateo wound up paying $305,000 for the house even though two appraisals would later show it was worth about $200,000. The mortgage firm charged her $7,000 in unnecessary fees. When she finally stepped inside after the closing she found walls pockmarked with holes, torn carpeting, and toilets and bathtubs ripped out.
She has spent her life savings on repairs. Foreclosure looms. "My life disappeared into that house," she said.
The agent Mateo worked with could not be located to comment for this article. But such scams, federal investigators say, are commonplace. Many firms rely on questionable appraisals to mark up properties by $100,000 or more, according to state investigators and court papers.
"There's millions of dollars to be made this way," said Josh Zinner of the Legal Services Foreclosure Prevention Project in Brooklyn. "Nobody regulates these companies. It's a huge, gaping hole."
The Race Card
Scammers across the nation target the elderly and minorities, often by appealing to racial and age solidarity. "There's a vulture industry that goes after people deemed vulnerable," said Oda Friedheim, a legal services lawyer in Queens.
A few years ago, Ruth Watt walked into a utility office to pay an overdue electric bill. A widow, she retired from American Express in the 1980s and lives in a handsome house in southeastern Queens, a neighborhood of black homeowners.
The customer service rep, Calvin Norwood, told Watt that he had a side business -- real estate -- and that he could lower her home costs by refinancing her mortgage. Later Norwood introduced her to an elderly partner, Odell Wilson, who was about Watt's age.
They talked of family, religion and race -- the men and Watt are black. Wilson promised to get Watt a refinancing loan of about 6 percent. At the loan closing, Wilson introduced Watt to a lawyer, Bruce Weiner. Watt said that Weiner, who is white, placed a pile of papers in front of her and advised her to start signing.
No one told Watt that the closing costs on her refinanced mortgage were $18,206, which is about triple the typical costs. Her interest rate rose from 8 percent to 11.25 percent and her mortgage payment jumped from $992.32 to $2,214, according to papers provided by the St. John's Elder Law Clinic.
Weiner, who agreed to a court-sealed monetary settlement with Watt, declined to comment on the specifics except to say, "It didn't happen as she said." Neither Norwood or Wilson returned phone calls or answered notes left at their listed homes.
Watt, like so many of those caught up in such fraud, confesses to great embarrassment at her naivete. But she added: "I still can't figure out how any human being can do that to another person."