Florida's Gulf Coast was crawling with shady real estate investors like Neil Husani during this decade's housing boom. According to the U.S. Attorney's office in Tampa, Husani and three co-conspirators working with his Sarasota-based Capital Force, Inc., bilked seven area banks out of $83 million in a mortgage fraud scheme. Between 2003 and 2006, they bought up dozens of properties, used false information to secure mortgages far in excess of the actual property values, then pocketed the difference, which amounted to more than $40 million. The properties went into foreclosure and the banks, as well as the surrounding communities, were left holding the bag. Two of Husani's partners recently pleaded guilty to the conspiracy; another was convicted, and Husani, whose trial is pending in the U.S., has been arrested in Jordan, where he awaits extradition.
The Capital Force case is one of the largest mortgage frauds to date in Florida, but it's just the tip of an iceberg of scams that have wrecked broad swaths of the state's reeling housing and commercial real estate market. The situation is worst along the I-4 Corridor between the Tampa and Orlando areas, where almost 30,000 homes are in foreclosure. (Lee County, in fact, has one of the nation's highest foreclosure rates, at about 12%.) In recent years, fraud involving either property purchases like Capital Force's, or schemes that falsely promise to help desperate homeowners hang on to their houses and then take the money and run has mushroomed. Now, the U.S. Attorney's office in the Middle District of Florida tells TIME, federal agents and prosecutors have embarked on a "surge" of mortgage and loan-modification fraud investigations that could result in more than 200 indictments this year in the Tampa region alone. "The idea is to do as many cases as we can at once," says Tampa U.S. Attorney Brian Albritton, "to clearly send a message that this is not going to be tolerated." (See 25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis)
For too long in Florida and the U.S., however, it seemed as though the swindlers were indeed getting away with it. As early as 2004, at the height of the housing frenzy, FBI officials were warning Congress of a mortgage fraud catastrophe: firms like Capital Force were illegally "flipping" properties, often using bogus "straw buyers"; unscrupulous appraisers were inflating their values; sub-prime borrowers lied about their assets; and predatory lenders duped customers into adjustable-rate loans that turned out to be financial time bombs. But according to the Justice Department, prosecutions of cases like those actually dropped between 2000 and 2007. Because so many law enforcement resources were thrown at terrorism during the Bush Administration, federal real estate fraud cases often took a back seat. Last year, even as the crisis became apparent, the Bush Justice Department still rejected a congressional recommendation to create a mortgage fraud task force.
Now that digging the country out of its economic sinkhole has become an issue of national security, the feds are straining to play catch-up. FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress last month that his agents are currently working more than 2,000 mortgage fraud investigations, compared to only 295 in 2003. "We still have a substantial way to go" in terms of shifting enough agents to those cases, Mueller said. Of the FBI's 56 field offices, more than 40 now have mortgage-fraud task forces. In Florida's Tampa-based Middle District, as many as 50 agents have been incorporated into new task forces that include more than 10 other federal agencies, such as the Secret Service, the U.S. Postal Service, the Department of Housing & Urban Development, the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. (Watch TIME's video "Facing Foreclosure in Tampa")
"Given the enormity of the problem," says Albritton, "we wanted to jointly organize ourselves even further to try and accelerate" the process. Says Steven Ibison, FBI special agent in charge in Tampa, "We're using resources that normally would be addressing other threats in order to surge this." Part of the strategy is to proceed in three "waves" that move "as high up the ladder" as possible, says Ibison: to collar not just the buyers who lied on loan applications, or brokers who ushered those shams along, but also the banks and lenders who looked the other way or actively participated in the scams (and often made a killing unloading toxic mortgages on Wall Street). That includes alleged top-level conspiracy "organizers" like Husani. "These kinds of crimes," Ibison notes, "rarely involve just one guy."
A big problem the feds face is that the housing crash has created a whole new slew of cases. The first stage of fraud, which helped bring about the crisis, is now being followed by a second as people scheme to buy up foreclosed homes and other properties whose prices have plummeted, or as desperate homeowners hurry to refinance exorbitant mortgages or get their interest rates and principals reduced. As a result, Albritton, who says the task force is also working with industry insiders who can walk agents and prosecutors through the arcane intricacies of mortgage fraud, hopes to clear the decks by making as many plea deals as possible with suspects as early as this spring. Indictments will come later in the year, and will probably be announced all at once, "to make the largest public impact and have the largest deterrent value."
Florida officials are making their own surge, which is only fitting given that appallingly lax state oversight earlier in the decade allowed just about any crook to become a mortgage broker. Five people were busted in Miami on Thursday in a $4.5 million straw buyer scam. Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum this month filed a civil lawsuit against a number of alleged loan-modification scam artists on behalf of scores if not hundreds of people, most of them facing foreclosure, who claim they paid upfront fees as high as $3,000 to have their mortgage terms improved so they could keep their homes. The suit alleges those services, which numerous non-profit organizations will do for free in tandem with lenders, were never delivered. (Read "Despite the Crash in Prices, Affordable Housing Still Lacking".)
One of the targets of the suit, which seeks restitution for the plaintiffs, is Keep Your Property, Inc. The North Miami Beach firm allegedly bilked Floridians like Leslie Brown, a 73-year-old Jamaican immigrant and former dockworker. When faced with foreclosure on his Ft. Lauderdale home last fall, he says he paid $2,200 along with other large fees to Keep Your Property, which promised to get his sky-high mortgage interest rate lowered so he could continue making house payments. "I was so happy, I was sure they would take care of it," says Brown, a widower who has since lost his house and is living with a friend. "They didn't do anything, and they took all my money." (No one answers the phone at Keep Your Property, and TIME's attempts to reach the owners, William Colon and Carlos Hernandez, were unsuccessful.)
Such is the state of affairs in Florida, regarded just a few years ago as the nation's home-buyer paradise. "We would be hard pressed to come up with another crime that has tugged at the fabric" of Florida lives, says Ibison. "Everyone ends up being a victim."