Editor's Note: This is the first in a series on the Real Estate Fraud Advisory Board and the Orange County District Attorney's fraud unit.
If you're in real estate and you're in Elizabeth Henderson's sites, you are probably on the wrong side of the law and you should know there's a whole community of real estate experts helping her try to catch and punish you.
Henderson, an assistant district attorney and head of the major fraud unit in the Orange County District Attorney's office, has behind her the Real Estate Fraud Advisory Board.
Henderson and the board meet every three months at the D.A.'s office to talk about new scams that may be going on out there, and how to better catch perpetrators of real estate-related fraud.
The D.A.'s real estate fraud unit, which has two attorneys and three investigators who work full time in the area of real estate fraud, has 37 active cases in which charges have been filed. Since it was launched in 2009, the unit has amassed 49 felony convictions, many of which have received assistance or real estate expertise from the advisory board.
There are roughly 20 people on the board, which is organized by the D.A.'s office.
In the last few years, the board and the unit have been increasingly busy, as the downturn of real estate has "brought a ton of schemes," Henderson said.
Loan modification fraud, and short-sale schemes are chief among the scams they're seeing, she added.
One trend that's becoming more commonplace is flopping. Unlike flipping, flopping is purchasing foreclosed properties at the lowest possible rate, then selling them a higher rate and collecting the difference.
Such sophisticated scams take place in a landscape of growing complexities in the real estate market, as more and more people are forced to look at loan modifications, short sales and other means to stave off foreclosures. That's where the expertise of the advisory board, also referred to as a "task force," comes in, Henderson said.
"The task force has been really good," she said, adding, "We're not real estate experts."
Beside Realtors, the task force has mortgage professionals, and professionals who specialize in helping out distressed homeowners as advisors.
"They give us input as to what the issues are that are facing them in the real estate community," Henderson said. "They're kind of our eyes and ears on the street."
Wally Malesh, with Keller Williams in Mission Viejo, and a member of the task force for more than two years, said he's gratified with his work on the task force.
"We're people who are very, very involved in our community and our industry, and people on the committee are working to making it a little bit better," Malesh said.
He added, "There's a couple of places where you see fraud kind of at its worst."
People who don't have great credit, the elderly and those who don't speak English as a primary language are favored victims of real estate fraud predators, he said.
Even properties themselves have become targets as of late.
"Today's concern is all of the distressed properties," he said.
According to Malesh, the task force has increasingly seen a growing problem in which people pick a vacant property and move in, eventually claiming to have ownership of property. The crime is often carried further, when these people run advertisements in the paper showcasing the home for rent, then they charge and collect the rent on a property that was likely foreclosed upon by the bank and has sat empty and unattended, Malesh said.
Task force member Jenean Hill, with First Team Real Estate in Lake Forest, has personally seen how fraud can affect people.
No too long ago, a close friend of hers was scammed into investing in a condo project, in which the real estate agent took her money and sent her spiraling into financial ruin, she said.
"As a single gal, she worked very hard to purchase and pay off her home in San Juan Capistrano," Hill said. "She took out a line of credit on it in order to invest with a real estate agent on a condo conversion project in Corona del Mar."
The agent worked for a real estate broker who had operated under 11 different business names in the past four years, according to Hill, who said the D.A. has taken on the case.
"He embezzled her money from the account that was established to build the condo conversion project," she said. "This resulted in the loss of her life's savings, her excellent credit ruined, and her home that was once paid for is now headed for foreclosure."
She added, "Although much of the Orange County District Attorney's fraud cases are much larger and involve multiple counts and victims, their help with this case touched me on a personal level. Our own friends and family members can become victims of fraud."
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