The “credit crunch” was named after the irresponsible lending practices by the banks and other financial institutions that were out of control when they reached their peak in around 2007. It had become possible for virtually anybody to approach a property developer and start buying properties without having any capital to invest. The driving force behind this was the ease with which the lenders would provide the money and the lack of control over who they would lend to. In the UK many property developers abused this credit glut and many even conspired with lawyers, surveyors and mortgage brokers to defraud the buyers and lenders of vast sums of money.
The USA has seen similar problems, with mortgage fraud again being one of the major contributors to the present downturn in the economy. In the late 80s and early 90s there was a similar crisis in the economy – albeit on a much smaller scale – with a collapse of confidence in the savings and loans system. The FBI geared up strongly following this in attempts to deal with the mortgage fraud and other financial crime that was firmly embedded within the crisis. A strike force based in 27 cities was staffed by more than a thousand FBI operators and forensic accountants, together with teams of federal lawyers to manage the resulting prosecutions. This thrust alone was responsible for over 600 successful convictions and confiscation orders amounting to $130,000,000.
Today’s financial downturn dwarfs its forerunner in the USA, as it does just about everywhere else in the world. In the USA the financial institutions have reduced their assets by an almost incomprehensible $1.2 trillion this time round. This is of course a massive reduction in value and one which crystallises the frauds and financial malpractices that were taking place almost unchecked. It compound problems in a crisis by, for example, causing investors to lose faith and requiring much higher returns from their investments – in this case the mortgage backed securities are the relevant investments that become expensive. The result is increasing interest rates and fees for bone fide borrowers who are chasing limited funds when compared to the previous glut.
What is mortgage fraud?
Mortgage fraud for profit is a planned attempt to remove equity from others for illegal profit. White collar criminals will purchase property using loans and then sell these properties on. If they inflate the value of the property borrowed, they can borrow more than the property is worth. Some times they will even borrow on fictitious property. This type of fraud usually operates in its various guises as a conspiracy to commit fraud between property developers, conveyance lawyers, mortgage brokers and property surveyors (property valuers). The victim can be either or both of the following:
1. The individual who buys an overpriced property using a mortgage and ends up with negative equity
2. The mortgage lender whose security does not meet the level of the amount loaned
Very often the mortgage lenders will pursue the individuals who owe them money even though they lent to them as a result of a fraud conspiracy or the sharp practice of the property developer. Many individuals can be bankrupted by this and in the end the mortgage companies also lose out.
Mortgage fraud can also be committed by a borrower, typically with the help of estate agents or property developers. In this way they are able to obtain a house that is perhaps more valuable than their situation would otherwise allow - they falsify their income in order to borrow more money. Although they do not qualify for a loan and are committing mortgage fraud, many of these types of borrowers happily service their loans and the mortgage lenders remain ignorant. It is only when the borrower is unable to repay a monthly installment or sell on to settle the loan that such fraud becomes apparent.
Trends in US Fraud
In the USA the FBI receives Suspicious Activity Reports as do the authorities in the UK – derived from the Department of Housing, the Urban Development Office and from the industry at large. However, a large part of the US mortgage industry does not have mandatory reporting and so the exact level of this type of fraud is unknown. The trends in those reports that are made do show an increase – for example during 2008, reported mortgage frauds were up 36% to 63,173 incidences.
It is a recognised fact that a financial crisis such as the current downturn will expose fraud schemes that had been thriving during the former boom years. As the financial markets deteriorate, fraud come to light – witness the number of Ponzi schemes (such as the Bernard Madoff scam) we are learning about seemingly daily!
The FBI investigated 566 major corporate frauds in 2006 – rising to some 2000 in 2008. These frauds include mortgage frauds, accounting fraud and insider trading. The increases are apparently stretching the FBI’s white collar crime resources.
The mortgage frauds seen include scams such as equity skimming and property flipping, where the fraudsters use corporate shell companies and corporate identity theft to appear bone fide followed up by threats of bankruptcy proceedings and foreclosure on clients and individuals to trick householders and investors to release their assets.
The FBI is gearing its approach to detecting and prosecuting mortgage and other forms of financial fraud which are seen to be a currently emerging threat to the stability of the US economy. Specialist software has been developed to detect incidence of property flipping in some hard hit areas such as Baltimore and Washington – searching databases for companies and persons showing patterns of property flipping (i.e. back-to-back purchases and sales or successive sales with very different sales prices over a short time). Undercover operations and wire taps are being used to good effect also, thus allowing criminals to be caught “in the act”.
The problem with mortgage fraud is that, as in the UK, many US property developers simply took advantage of the ease with which credit could be obtained. Put this alongside human greed to make large sums of money very easily and many investors previously lost any caution when entering the property investment business. They would buy property unseen, to rent out or sell on, relying on the fact that the values of property were bound to increase – as history had shown property does increase but there are “blips” and cycles that need to be accounted for. There are commentators that are currently saying that property prices will not rise for another 10 years! The successful property speculator will plan for this, only paying market value or less and certainly not relaying on the hype that was circulated by many of the property development companies during the boom years.
Read these other articles on mortgage fraud:
This article is grateful for facts and information presented by Mr J Pistole of the FBI in a statement before the House Committee of the Judiciary on 1 April 2009.