Recent financial industry distress publicly attributed to widespread mortgage loan defaults has generated mounting pressure on federal prosecutors to increase investigations into incidents of mortgage fozia shan fraud across the nation. On February 6, 2004, CNN reported that the FBI warned that mortgage fraud was becoming so rampant that the resulting “epidemic” of fraud could trigger a massive financial crisis.
Mortgage fraud has now become so prevalent that the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been forced to create an entirely new category for tracking these cases. According to a CBS news report, the number of FBI agents assigned to mortgage related crimes increased by 50 percent from 2007 to 2008. Prosecutors and investigators on both the state and local levels are also feverishly organizing task forces and creating real estate fraud departments to counter this burgeoning wave of crime.
The primary focus of these investigations appears to be on borrowers, investors, mortgage brokers, appraisers and real estate agents. Some of the charges levied against these perpetrators have included making false statements on loan applications, bank fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to launder funds and a number of applicable state laws.
However, the primary legal vehicle implemented by federal prosecutors has been section 1014 of Title 18 of the United States Code which declares mortgage fraud as a federal crime encompassing anyone who willfully overvalues any land or property, or knowingly makes any false statement, for the purpose of influencing a financial institution upon a loan application, purchase agreement or other related documents. A violation of the federal mortgage fraud law (18 U.S.C. § 1014) alone is punishable by up to thirty years imprisonment and a one million dollar fine.
The most effective way to avoid prosecution for mortgage fraud is to identify mortgage fraud schemes prior to any actual involvement. Most mortgage fraud offenses fall into one of two general categories: “fraud for housing” and “fraud for profit”. Fraud for housing often involves fraudulent acts committed by a borrower, often coached by his or her mortgage broker or real estate agent, to obtain a loan for the ultimate goal of acquiring a home. These fraudulent facts generally pertain to the falsification of facts and documents during the loan application process to enable the borrower to obtain financing that he or she would otherwise not be qualified to receive. Conversely, fraud for profit typically involves a more concerted plan to abuse the entire real estate transactional process for pecuniary gain.
This occurs when a borrower inflates his or her amount of income to qualify for a loan or a larger loan amount. Although recent reductions in the use of “stated income” or “no-doc liar loans” has somewhat curbed income fraud, daring borrowers are increasingly generating more fraudulent documents to falsify income. Information technology and photocopy equipment have become so advanced that very convincing documentation, such as income statements, savings accounts and tax returns, can be produced on demand.
In order to justify overstated income in a loan application, borrowers will claim self-employment in a non-existent company or represent having a higher position in a company than the borrower actually holds.
The debt-to-income ratio is an important part of the loan underwriting criteria used to determine a borrower’s eligibility for mortgage loans. Consequently, borrowers will conceal financial obligations like newly acquired credit card debt, other mortgages, and private loans to artificially reduce their debt-to-income ratios.
Generally occurs when a borrower states on a loan application that he or she intends to occupy a property as a primary residence to secure a lower interest rate when the borrower actually intends to obtain the loan to acquire an investment property.
A straw buyer is typically implemented as the buyer of the property due to his or her creditworthiness and resulting ability to obtain favorable financing. Unknowing straw buyers can be manipulated by mortgage brokers and real estate agents to purchase a property as a primary residence with the broker or agent later serving as a property manager to collect anticipated rental income. After the escrow closes and the mortgage and real estate brokers collect their commissions, they proceed to collect rental income and fail to make the mortgage payments.
Complex schemes can involve a knowing straw buyer, an appraiser who intentionally overstates the property’s value, a dishonest seller that intentionally inflates the selling price, and a dishonest settlement officer that makes undisclosed disbursements from the loan proceeds. All of these conspirators collaborate to collect portions of the proceeds of an inappropriately large loan before eventually letting it go into default.