Upset with the rise in property crimes, and concerned about desperate home-owners--especially seniors--being victimized by scams, officials from the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office said last week that they are taking a more active approach to real estate fraud and now have the resources to fight these crimes.
Deputy district attorneys Kim Connors and Mike Fitzsimmons asked real estate agents for their help in fighting real estate fraud.
Realtors are in the trenches and know what is happening to homeowners. "You are our eyes and ears," said Connors.
Real estate fraud has been on the rise since the mortgage meltdown. "Desperate homeowners are ripe to be victims of loan modification and other scams," said Fitzsimmons.
The good news is the district attorney's office now has more funds to fight property crime issues. Fitzsimmons explained financing to fight real estate fraud comes from recording fees. Before this year, $3 from each recording fee went to the unit; this year, $10 will go to toward real estate fraud prosecution.
The increased funding has allowed the office to beef up its real estate fraud unit with four prosecutors, three full-time paralegals and seven investigators. One paralegal is solely engaged in reviewing changes in titles, sending out letters to homeowners verifying authenticity, and letters to homeowners who have received notices of default, with information on what they can do and victim prevention tips.
"We have a lot more money to work with and will be hiring more attorneys and investigators. If you see suspicious activity, report it to us. With new funding, we now have the ability and higher capacity to deal with these crimes," said Fitzsimmons.
Connors, who is a Department of Aging and Adult Services financial abuse specialist, said elder fraud is high on the list of crimes that are occurring more frequently and it is very important that crimes, or suspicions of crimes being committed, be reported immediately. She explained that once homeowners are victimized and a new buyer is involved, "it is very hard to put someone back to where they were because the law protects innocent third party buyers."
The office is seeing many cases involving rental scams, including rental of rooms in a property, and Ponzi schemes involving the financing, sale and transfer of property. Crimes involving sovereign citizens are also on the rise.
Sovereign citizens do not believe the law applies to them. Some have been caught usurping the role of agents and other officials. They file liens and notices seeking to wipe out mortgages and cancel foreclosures, then charge homeowners for their services, but the documents are fake.
They name themselves as trustees, convince financially strapped homeowners to deed the property and make payments to them, with the promise that after a few years they would deed the property back. In the meantime, these criminals strip the property of all its equity, or sell the property to someone else. Some 574 homeowners have been contacted by these criminals and crimes have resulted in a loss of as much as $94 million.
Fitzsimmons said, fortunately, real estate is ready-made for creating a case because documents create a paper trail for good evidence, but Connors noted an investigation can take time, and while the district attorney's office can prosecute, it does not have the authority to correct title or evict residents. This is why reporting suspicious activity immediately is critical.
"Don't hesitate to contact us. Do not be the easy house. If you think something it not right, report it," said Connors.
For questions, or to report a crime or suspicious activity, contact the Real Estate Fraud Unit at 408.792.2818.