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Mortgage modification scammers bilked homeowners out of millions

California group found guilty of operating nationwide scam

Three California residents are facing between 60 and 170 years in federal prison after they were convicted of running a nationwide mortgage modification scam that defrauded thousands of distressed homeowners out of millions of dollars.

Christopher Paul George, 45, of Rancho Cucamonga; Crystal Taiwana Buck, 40, of Long Beach; and Albert DiRoberto, 62, of Fullerton; were convicted for their roles in a scheme that offered phony mortgage modifications to thousands of financially distressed homeowners who lost more than $7 million when they paid for services, including loan modifications, that were never provided, according to a release from the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

According to SIGTARP, George, Buck and DiRoberto were employees of a California-based telemarketing operation known under a series of names, including 21st Century Legal Services, Inc.

During an 18-month period that began in the middle of 2008, Andrea Ramirez, 47, who previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, operated 21st Century, which defrauded financially distressed homeowners by making false promises and guarantees regarding 21st Century’s ability to negotiate loan modifications for homeowners, SIGTARP said.

Employees of 21st Century made numerous misrepresentations to victims during the course of the scheme, including falsely telling victims that 21st Century was operating a loan modification program sponsored by the United States government.  Victims were generally instructed to stop communicating with their lenders and to stop making their mortgage payments.

George was a co-owner of 21st Century, and acted as a sales manager for the company. George also ran his own sales office there for several months. SIGTARP said that George instructed 21st Century employees to make misrepresentations to distressed homeowners, including guaranteeing that 21st Century would obtain loan modifications and telling homeowners that payments made to 21st Century would go towards homeowners’ mortgages.

According to SIGTARP, Ramirez and other 21st Century employees would, on occasion, tell homeowners that 21st Century was using the fees paid by the homeowner to make mortgage payments, when in fact Ramirez, George, and their co-defendants were simply pocketing the homeowners’ money.

George was found guilty of one count of mail fraud affecting a financial institution, three counts of wire fraud, two counts of wire fraud affecting a financial institution, and one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. He faces a statutory maximum sentence of 170 years in federal prison.

Buck acted as a sales “closer” at 21st Century, SIGTARP said. For her role in the scheme, she was convicted of three counts of mail fraud and faces a statutory maximum sentence of 60 years in federal prison.

DiRoberto handled both sales and marketing for 21st Century, which included making a commercial for 21st Century and preparing talking points to respond to negative publicity. He was found guilty of one count of mail fraud affecting a financial institution and two counts of wire fraud affecting a financial institution, and faces a statutory maximum sentence of 90 years in federal prison.

“George, the owner of 21st Century, and his co-conspirators were convicted today following a five-week jury trial for swindling more than 4,000 struggling homeowners out of approximately $7 million using deceit and lies to obtain money for loan modifications which were represented as being affiliated with federal housing aid programs,” said Christy Romero, Special Inspector General for TARP.

“The defendants’ sole goal was getting money from homeowners, and they did and said whatever it took to make that happen,” Romero continued. “SIGTARP and our law enforcement partners will put an end to schemes that prey on struggling homeowners by falsely claiming to be associated with TARP’s housing programs, and perpetrators of such schemes will be brought to justice for their crimes.”

In addition to Ramirez, George, Buck and DiRoberto, seven other California residents previously pleaded guilty for their involvement in the scheme.

“Members of the conspiracy preyed upon homeowners who were in desperate financial straits by making promises they had no intention of keeping,” said Acting United States Attorney Stephanie Yonekura. “The impact on victim homeowners across the country was severe, and it’s gratifying to see justice served in this case.”

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