An increasing number of Michigan residents tapping the equity in their homes to pay overdue bills and maintain their lifestyle during rocky economic times are becoming victims of mortgage fraud, costing them thousands of dollars -- and sometimes even the roof over their heads.
A package of bills unveiled Monday would offer people refinancing their homes more protection from lenders who are defrauding the real estate industry by giving law enforcement officials more muscle to investigate and prosecute such cases.
The state has one of the fastest-growing mortgage-fraud problems in the nation, according to the FBI. Michigan's mortgage-fraud losses jumped from nearly $9 million in 2003 to $26 million in 2005.
The bills presented by Republican state Reps. Fran Amos of Waterford, Rick Baxter of Concord and Jim Marleau of Lake Orion would make mortgage fraud a felony, reallocate $3 million in broker fees to the attorney general for the investigation and prosecution of fraud and prevent appraisers from modifying appraisals in exchange for business.
"I'd like for them to do whatever they have to do to make these people pay for what they're doing to us," Rosalie Seay, 78, of Pontiac said Monday. She and her husband, Claude, 82, believe they are mortgage-fraud victims.
The Seays, who owned four investment properties in Pontiac, said they thought they were refinancing the homes last August to make improvements on them and to help pay for their son's medical bills after he developed a brain tumor.
Instead, they said, they unknowingly signed over their homes using a blank quit-claim deed later filled in by a company that Rosalie Seay said she either found in the phone book or saw on television.
Now the Seays are trying to get their homes back and have made repeated appearances in Oakland County Circuit Court trying to prove that they were duped out of at least $300,000. The next court date is scheduled for November; the FBI also is investigating.
Getting tough on fraud
Key points of the proposed legislation:
Individuals convicted of residential mortgage fraud would become felons and spend up to 10 years in prison and pay a fine of up to $5,000. Repeat offenders would be imprisoned for up to 20 years and pay a $10,000 fine.
Money from the Real Estate Enforcement Fund, $3 million, would be reallocated to the state Attorney General's Office to investigate and prosecute residential mortgage fraud. Currently, the fund, paid by brokers and associate brokers, is used only to investigate unlicensed activity.
The Michigan Mortgage Brokers, Lenders and Servicers Licensing Act would be amended to prevent influence on appraisers, such as setting preconditions on the outcome for being selected to conduct the appraisal or indicating that payment for the appraisal will be received only if the lending agent is given a desired value.
The Seays are hopeful that the proposed bills can protect other unwitting homeowners.
"They are preying on senior citizens like myself," Rosalie Seay said. "I've always worked for everything; I never had a handout. For someone to come and take it away at the blink of an eye is awful."
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What you can do
- If you think you may have been a victim: Contact your local sheriff's office, the FBI's Detroit field office at 313-965-2323 or the FBI's Oakland County office at 248-879-6090.
- To let legislators know how you feel about the proposed bills: Go to http://house.michigan.gov/replist.asp to find representatives' phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
Contact SUZETTE HACKNEY at