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FBI crackdown on fraudulent mortgages may underestimate scope of problem

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When the Federal Bureau of Investigation began Operation Stolen Dreams in March 2010, the government’s largest mortgage fraud takedown, the FBI estimated about $2.3 billion of fraudulent mortgages were originated in 2009. However, recent estimates from a source monitoring the operation indicates that number is now closer to $14 billion. The numbers were put together recently by an European investment bank in the run-up to a mortgage fraud conference in the U.K. next month. It found that mortgage fraud in the U.K. stood at $120 million in 2009.  "The phenomenon, though worrying and one that certainly requires strong intervention from authorities, is not of the same scale as in the U.S.," said the source. "Securitization is therefore well protected from this issue." According to a national fraud report by Interthinx, overall mortgage fraud decreased in 2Q from 1Q to an index of 145 (12% above the index in 2Q of 2009). An index of 100 signifies a normal level of fraud risk. Risk was the highest in Nevada and Arizona, where the indices were 239 and 238, respectively. Operation Stolen Dreams was launched as a multi-agency effort to take down deceptive brokers, lenders and real estate agents. As of mid-June, 485 arrests and 330 convictions were made under the program. The FBI recovered $168 million, $10.7 million was confiscated and $147 million was put aside for victims of predatory lending. "Mortgage fraud ruins lives, destroys families, and devastates whole communities," said attorney general Eric Holder at a press conference announcing the results. The FBI is attacking all realms of mortgage fraud including application fraud, foreclosure fraud and property flipping fraud. One example listed on their official website describes a $130 million scheme in Detroit. A local motorcycle gang posed as a group of mortgage brokers, appraisers, real estate agents and title agents and used straw buyers to obtain approximately 500 mortgages on only 180 properties. But commercial real estate is affected too. The FBI estimates that the outstanding balance regarding fraudulent mortgages in the CRE space to hit $100 billion by the end of this year. In addition to the FBI's main detective agency for the program, the National Mortgage Fraud Task Force, it also employs 23 local mortgage fraud task forces around the nation, targeting key areas such as California, Texas, New York and Florida. Write to Christine Ricciardi.

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