Homeowners get mortgage fraud alert
While it may seem an unlikely threat, mortgage fraud was a $26 million problem in Michigan last year, up from $9 million in 2003. Seven new OFIS field examiners have joined six others to investigate the crime. The FBI underlined the problem in Michigan last year when it identified the state as among 10 hot spots for mortgage and deed fraud.
Homeowners get mortgage fraud alert
Sunday, July 23, 2006
With little fanfare, the state this month more than doubled the number of examiners employed by the Office of Financial and Insurance Services to go after people trying to steal your home.
While it may seem an unlikely threat, mortgage fraud was a $26 million problem in Michigan last year, up from $9 million in 2003. Seven new OFIS field examiners have joined six others to investigate the crime.
The FBI underlined the problem in Michigan last year when it identified the state as among 10 hot spots for mortgage and deed fraud.
"Why us?'' is the logical question Michigan homeowners may be asking about our status as prime targets for shysters.
Republicans last week supplied the context that the Democratic Granholm administration may have declined to address: Michigan's dire economic straits.
"The only thing worse than Michigan's current economic crisis is a criminal who uses that crisis to victimize people,'' Rep. Rick Baxter of Concord said during a press conference announcing a GOP plan to crack down on the crime.
He said many cash-strapped homeowners have been forced to tap their equity just to make the nut every month, and they're increasingly susceptible to shady dealers.
Unscrupulous lenders deceive homeowners - often senior citizens - into signing over the title to their property when they refinance, in one of several types of mortgage fraud.
"We intend to go after these criminals who are picking on our most vulnerable citizens,'' said Rep. Fran Amos, R-Waterford. "Michigan does not want to be known as the state where you can come in and do this.''
"This'' can include a fairly easy process whereby a con artist claims ownership of a home by presenting phony documents to the county registrar of deeds and then sells the property. In cahoots with the fake owner, the "buyer'' mortgages the house and walks away with the cash, leaving the real homeowner with the bill.
Amos' legislation would make mortgage fraud, now a misdemeanor, a felony punishable by a $5,000 fine and/or 10 years in prison.
Baxter's bill would rev up enforcement by allowing the state Attorney General's Office to use the $3 million in the Real Estate Enforcement Fund, currently used to pursue unlicensed brokers, to investigate and prosecute mortgage fraud.
Mortgage fraud is a concern because it affects not only homeowners and lenders, but the economy and a broad range of consumers by artificially inflating real estate prices and pushing up interest rates and fees.
The FBI says 80 percent of perpetrators are industry insiders - appraisers, bankers, lawyers, real estate brokers.
OFIS' goal is to examine each of the some 3,200 licensed mortgage companies in Michigan every five years, Linda Watters, the state's insurance commissioner, said in a statement announcing the new workers.
"These examiners will be the agency's eyes and ears in the field, and will provide invaluable information regarding market practices occurring in Michigan,'' she said.
OFIS officials say the stumbling economy isn't as much a factor in Michigan's fraud rate as the concurrent growth in a similar crime, identity theft. Raising consumer awareness is key.
They suggest that consumers check with OFIS to make sure the mortgage brokers, lenders and servicers they're dealing with are licensed. The toll-free OFIS hotline is 877-999-6442.
Contact Sharon Emery at 517-487-8888, ext. 236 or e-mail her at