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Mortgage fraud ring called 'extreme'
The discovery was the turning point in an investigation that led to Tuesday's closure of seven brokerage and escrow companies in an ongoing campaign against predatory lenders.
A family of accused con artists is suspected of leading an operation that processed thousands of home loans in California during the past several years in a widespread refinancing scam.
The case has brought renewed calls for tighter regulation of the troubled mortgage industry that threatens to take the U.S. economy down with it.
Experts said the fraud occurred in a weak regulatory environment in a business that offered huge financial incentives to brokers willing to cheat.
'There's no regulatory oversight, it's all complaint-based,' said Dustin Hobbs, communication director for the California Mortgage Bankers Association. 'Like these people found out, until you file a complaint, there's no oversight of these brokers.'
Prosecutors called it the most brazen case they had ever seen, and an operation that had slipped past loan officers and regulators in a booming housing market fueled by greed.
'I haven't seen anything this extreme ever before,' said Christina Tusan, the California deputy attorney general assigned to the civil case in which the web of companies is being sued for more than $20 million.
Lenders in that booming period were interested in rapid approvals and high volumes and failed to raise questions about suspect deals, said Paul Leonard, California director for the nonprofit Center for Responsible Lending.
'Their levels of due diligence for reviews of their loans coming in from brokerage channels were not particularly rigorous,' he said.
The group is accused of targeting unknowing homeowners whose homes had escalated in value by offering dreamlike mortgage refinancing offers, with promises of cash back and lower monthly payments, Bremner said.
Victims later learned they had been locked into high interest rate loans, excessive fees and unfavorable terms. In some cases, the cash back never materialized.
Late Tuesday, the alleged ringleader in the scam, 25-year-old Eric Pony, and his sister, Paulette Pony, 23, turned themselves in to police to face charges including conspiracy, grand theft, forgery and elder abuse. Five other suspects were also arrested. It wasn't immediately known if they had retained an attorney.
The crackdown began with Eric Pony's company, Lifetime Financial Inc., and spread to others after Pony lost his real estate license last September and transferred his operations to other companies with active mortgage broker licenses, authorities said.
Paulette Pony had her commission as a notary revoked last December, after investigators uncovered a misdemeanor forgery conviction in 2003, more than a year before she became a legal notary.
The pair, working with their mother, Wilma Pony, channeled most of their mortgage applications through New Century Mortgage Corp., which has since folded. Wilma Pony has not been charged criminally, but is a defendant in the lawsuit filed Monday by the attorney general.
Bremner said loan documents often ran a cumbersome 300 pages. In many cases, problems were missed amid the rush to earn commissions for quickly approving deals.
'Based on the volume of loans that New Century was doing at the time, it was either a combination of just missing these items or just looking the other way,' he said.
Several proposed laws attempting to address the collapse of the industry are pending before the state Legislature.
It includes AB 2880, a bill that would impose a greater fiduciary duty on mortgage brokers to act in the best interests of the borrower, and limit the use of 'yield spread premiums,' which are incentives paid to brokers to sign borrowers at interest rates that are higher than the rate for which they are qualified.
Other bills include AB 512, which would require documents to be translated into languages like Spanish or Chinese when contracts are negotiated in that language. Many of Lifetime Financial's alleged victims spoke Spanish or Tagalog but the contracts were in English.
'Those bills together represent a fairly comprehensive package of reforms,' Leonard said. 'They would fix some of the distorted incentives around kickbacks to brokers ... and strengthen the system of accountability for everyone in the mortgage origination process.'
For Tracylyn Sharrit, 40, the regulations would be too late. After meeting with Eric Pony, she said she found her signature forged on loan documents and the monthly payments on her three-bedroom, 1,100-square-foot home in San Bernardino jumped from $1,070 to $1,868.
The money promised to her in an equity cash-out has been whittled away on fees, and her loan amount ballooned from $167,000 to more than $260,000.
Making ends meet is harder than before for the marketing director of a nonprofit company.
'I took my daughter to the doctor's the other day, and I'm thinking, 'How much is the co-pay?' I've never had to think about that before,' she said.
Copyright 2008 Associated Press.