It may also have been easy to steal from them, to judge from a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme that federal prosecutors unraveled here in Atlanta. The criminals obtained $6.8 million in mortgages from Bear Stearns Cos., including a $1.8 million mortgage to Calvin Wright, a New Yorker who told the investment bank that he and his wife earned more than $50,000 a month as the top officers of a marketing firm. Mr. Wright submitted statements showing assets of $3 million, a federal indictment alleged.
In fact, Mr. Wright was a phone technician earning only $105,000 a year, with assets of only $35,000, and his wife was a homemaker. The palm-tree-lined mansion they purchased with Bear Stearns's $1.8 million recently sold out of foreclosure for just $1.1 million. Bear Stearns, meanwhile, posted the first quarterly loss in its 84-year history as it wrote down $1.9 billion of mortgage assets yesterday. (See related article1.)
Fraud goes a long way toward explaining why mortgage defaults and foreclosures are rocking financial institutions, Wall Street and the economy. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says the share of its white-collar agents and analysts devoted to prosecuting mortgage fraud has risen to 28%, up from 7% in 2003. Suspicious Activity Reports, which many lenders are required to file with the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network when they suspect fraud, shot up nearly 700% between 2000 and 2006.
In 2006, losses from fraud could total a record $4.5 billion, a 100% increase from the previous year, says Arthur Prieston, chairman of the Prieston Group, which provides lenders with mortgage-fraud insurance and training. The surge ranges from one-off cases of fudging and fibbing to organized criminal rings. The FBI says its active mortgage-fraud cases have increased to 1,210 this year from 436 in 2003. In some regions, fraud may account for half of all foreclosures. "We've created a culture where a great many people know how to take advantage of the system," says Mr. Prieston.
Yet the system itself bears blame. The evolution of mortgages into a securities instrument turned loan origination into a competition. Caution gave way to a push for speed and volume. Embroiled in an all-out war for market share, issuers reduced barriers to credit, for example, by offering so-called "stated-income" loans, which require no proof of income. "The stated-income loan deserves the nickname used by many in the industry, the 'liar's loan,' " says the Mortgage Asset Research Institute, which works with lenders to prevent fraud. A recent review of a sampling of about 100 stated-income loans revealed that almost 60% of the stated amounts were exaggerated by more than 50%, MARI says.
It didn't take a rocket scientist to steal a fortune from mortgage lenders in recent years. That much is clear from the Atlanta scheme. It was perpetrated in large part by a 23-year-old college dropout named Gregory Jerome Wings Jr., aka G-Money. His accomplices included a young nightclub owner, along with the director of an underground documentary called "Crackheads Gone Wild," a cautionary tale about drug addiction.
Their scam was garden variety: recruit borrowers with good credit to apply for gigantic loans, often of the stated-income variety, using false income and asset statements. Find a mortgage broker willing to submit false information, and find appraisers who will approve inflated values. The perpetrators line their pockets with the proceeds, using some as down payments or for future renovations. Some buyers diverted proceeds to themselves through shell companies.
The brazenness of the scheme is illustrated by the case of Mr. Wright, the New York telephone worker who posed as a highly paid executive to obtain a $1.8 million mortgage from Bear Stearns. Recruited into the scheme by an acquaintance in Atlanta, Mr. Wright, with the help of ring leaders, diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars from that Bear Stearns mortgage to himself, to Mr. Wings and to others in the scheme, according to a federal indictment.
In the very same week, Mr. Wright obtained a $1.9 million mortgage on a second value-inflated mansion near Atlanta, this time from BankFirst, a unit of Minneapolis-based Marshall BankFirst Corp. This deal also brought enormous spoils to Mr. Wright, Mr. Wings and other accomplices.
"It was so easy, it's incredible," says Akil Secret, attorney for Mr. Wright, who has pleaded guilty to bank fraud and is awaiting sentencing.
'Seemed Clean and OK'
As profits from the scheme fattened their wallets, these young men became the envy of their peers, especially since their actions involved none of the dangers of street crime. "You see a guy who is 23 and he's driving a fancy car. You go into clubs and everyone seems to know him, and you kind of want to be like him," says defense attorney Rickey Richardson, explaining how his client, Daryl Smith, got involved in the scheme. "This wasn't drugs. This wasn't guns. This seemed clean and OK."
Residents of some fancy Atlanta suburbs spotted the scheme. They became suspicious when new homes in their neighborhoods sold for sky-high prices, then remained vacant. After the same individual bought several such homes in one ritzy development, neighbors alerted authorities. One homeowner who helped expose the fraud and other schemes in his neighborhood now carries a loaded handgun in his truck. "This is serious stuff," he says. "We are putting people in prison for many, many years."
Since federal authorities issued an indictment in April 2006, Mr. Wings, Mr. Smith, Mr. Wright and about 10 others have pleaded guilty to various counts, including bank fraud, and are awaiting sentencing. Another ringleader was convicted in federal court last month. Their sentences could be lengthy: In an unrelated case, an Atlanta attorney with no prior criminal record was sentenced in August 2005 to 30 years in federal prison on a mortgage-fraud conviction. Mr. Wings declined to comment for this story, as did Messrs. Wright and Smith.
In the wake of their downfall, debate has been intense about how such an unaccomplished group could defraud top-tier financial institutions out of millions.
Prosecutors call the scheme sophisticated, noting its reliance upon forged and falsified documentation.
Lenders agree. Bear Stearns says the scheme evaded its antifraud efforts by supplying false information at every step of the application process. "We as an industry cannot eliminate fraud entirely," Tom Marano, head of mortgages and asset-backed securities for Bear Sterns, said in a statement about the Atlanta ring. "We can and do continue to develop systems and detection techniques that evolve with the complexity of criminal schemes.'"
But others contend that the Atlanta case illustrates the recklessness with which lenders were issuing mortgages in recent years. "This case should have been an indictment of the mortgage industry," says Patrick Deering, an Atlanta defense attorney involved in the case.
In an eye-opening setback for prosecutors, Mr. Deering and other defense attorneys successfully defended three home builders against charges that they had participated in the scheme. Prosecutors had attacked the home builders for failing to raise red flags when they witnessed mortgages being issued far in excess of what the builders were being paid.
On the Offensive
But some defense attorneys went on the offensive and attacked lenders for failing to guard against fraud. Particularly illuminating was the testimony of Lucy Lynch, a former vice president of mortgage operations at BankFirst.
"Fraud was not really a consideration in our world," Ms. Lynch testified, according to a trial transcript.
Ms. Lynch said the bank relied on an outside "loan officer" at a reputable mortgage broker to serve as its "eyes and ears" in the real-estate transactions. As it turned out, that person was indicted as part of the fraud ring. Ms. Lynch stressed that the bank took measures such as running all loan applications through a software program designed to detect fraud. "And things that didn't seem quite right, an underwriter could quickly pick those things out," Ms. Lynch said, according to a trial transcript. "So as far as having an actual policy or procedure around fraud, we didn't think it was necessary, quite frankly."
A total of $4.9 million in loans from BankFirst were used by the Atlanta fraud ring. In some cases, the bank gave its blessing to closing documents that showed unexplained payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars to obscure companies that turned out to be owned by the fraudsters. On three different Atlanta-area homes over a three-month period starting in late 2005, closing documents approved by BankFirst showed large payouts to the same companies.
Ms. Lynch said the bank assumed that the cash was going to subcontractors for construction work. But the bank never asked for invoices. In an interview, Ms. Lynch says the bank was primarily checking to make sure the borrower wasn't being charged any additional fees or debt. "We didn't do anything different from the rest of the industry,'' she said, adding that she believes her testimony helped convict three perpetrators of the fraud -- two borrowers and a real-estate agent who helped lead the ring.
Asked in court why the pattern of payouts didn't raise any red flags, Ms. Lynch responded: "Do you have any idea how many loans came into BankFirst during that time period?" She said BankFirst typically allowed a "15-minute window" from the time it received closing documents by fax to the time it released the loan proceeds to the borrower.
Ultimately, prosecutors failed to convict any of the three home builders. Charges against one were dropped. Another was the subject of a mistrial. And the third was acquitted before the case went to the jury. "These were the wrong people on trial," says Mr. Deering, whose client, home builder Randall Tharp, was acquitted.
One of the biggest losers in the Atlanta scheme was Bear Stearns. A total of $6.8 million in Bear Stearns loans were used by the enterprise. The fourth-largest mortgage that Bear Stearns originated in 2006 went to a borrower in the Atlanta scheme. That involved a mansion on which Bear Stearns lent nearly $3 million. Today, that mansion is in foreclosure and listed at $1.75 million.
Bear Stearns says falsified income and asset documents are difficult to detect "if they are part of a sophisticated fraud ring." In the case of the $1.8 million loan that Bear Stearns issued to Mr. Wright, the New York telephone worker, the company says it verified Mr. Wright's employment and assets.
But Mr. Wright's attorney, Mr. Secret, says, "Bear Stearns certainly couldn't have verified any of the assets or any of the money. It simply wasn't there."
A relative newcomer to the mortgage-origination business, Bear Stearns in 2005 created Bear Stearns Residential Mortgage to focus on "Alt-A" mortgages, a category between prime and subprime loans. Bear says its Alt-A loans included stated-income mortgages that required verification of assets.
During its first full year of business in 2006, Bear Stearns Residential Mortgage originated 19,715 mortgages for a combined $4.37 billion, according to data compiled by the Federal Reserve and analyzed by The Wall Street Journal.
Bear Stearns Residential Mortgage rejected about 13% of applications, compared with an average denial rate of 29% nationally, according to the Fed data. Bear Stearns says that it had a lower denial rate because all of its applicants had already been screened through its "on line pre-qualifying" site before they submitted a formal application.
Since the scheme, Bear Stearns says it has enhanced its monitoring of payouts listed on closing statements. BankFirst stopped issuing residential mortgages altogether, citing the declining market.
Some banks victimized by the Atlanta ring say they depended in part on a party called the closing attorney to protect their interests. But often, lenders neither choose nor pay for the closing attorney: The buyer does. In this case, the closing attorney was part of the fraud ring. The 58-year-old lawyer, Raymond Costanzo Jr., known in the ring as "Uncle Joe," signed off on several fraudulent sales, and collected $250,000 from the scheme, the indictment alleges. In 2006, Mr. Costanzo pleaded guilty to bank fraud and is awaiting sentencing.
Of course, the Atlanta scheme wouldn't have worked if not for appraisers willing to approve values far in excess of what builders were charging for new homes. Indeed, Bear Stearns and BankFirst say they ordered multiple appraisals of the homes they financed. Yet no evidence has emerged of appraisers receiving kickbacks. And no appraisers got indicted.
Artificially Raised Values
In some neighborhoods, the fraud scheme itself may have artificially raised values. Another explanation is that the appraisal market is fiercely competitive. Experts say some appraisers may offer inflated values in exchange for their standard fee of several hundred dollars -- a strategy that can win business without exposing an appraiser to charges of fraud. "Appraisers get sucked into these schemes because they are starving for work and many of them don't know what the heck they are doing," says Carl Heckman, co-founder of the Georgia Real Estate Fraud Prevention and Awareness Coalition, composed of appraisers, lenders, mortgage brokers and residents.
In the neighborhoods where the Atlanta scheme operated, values have plummeted. Many homes associated with the scheme are now in foreclosure. Some have sold for as low as 50% of what buyers in the fraud ring paid. "The banks are getting more and more aggressive in their pricing because they don't want to own these homes," says Warren Lovett, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Atlanta.
Mr. Lovett has taken listings for about 60 foreclosed properties this year. He estimates that half of the foreclosures he's encountered are due to fraud.