Utah ranks fifth in the nation for mortgage fraud, and state leaders have vowed to crack down on the problem.
A report Thursday by the Mortgage Asset Research Institute for the Mortgage Bankers Association found that the Beehive State had a high incidence of people committing mortgage fraud. The most common types of fraud included misstating income or employment history and falsifying financial information.
The top state for mortgage fraud was Florida, which led the list for the second year in a row, followed by Nevada, Michigan, California and Utah.
The report came from an industrywide database that includes information about fraud and fraud allegations collected from approximately 700 mortgage companies, ranging from finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to mid-size lenders.
The report, released at a Mortgage Bankers Association conference in Chicago, did not detail the exact number of fraud cases by state or nationwide. Instead, the group calculated a "fraud index" by comparing fraud reports with the number of home loans made in each state.
It cited FBI statistics showing 46,700 mortgage-fraud reports in 2007, a more than 30 percent increase from the year before and twice as many than in 2000. Federally insured lenders are required to report fraud to the government.
Mortgage fraud has represented about $1 billion in losses over the past decade, the Mortgage Bankers Association said.
David Kittle, chairman of the mortgage bankers' group and chief executive of Principle Wholesale Lending in Louisville, Ky., said the industry does not blame borrowers alone for committing fraud. He said real estate agents, mortgage brokers, builders and lenders all share responsibility for a climate of lax standards that has now ended.
"There's enough responsibility to go around to everybody," he said in a conference call with reporters.
The Mortgage Bankers Association is calling for more than $31 million over the next five years in new funding for the FBI and Justice Department to fight mortgage fraud by hiring new investigators and prosecutors.
U.S. federal law enforcement agencies are planning a nationwide crackdown on suspected cases of mortgage fraud in June, a U.S. Department of Justice official said Thursday.
"Operation Malicious Mortgage" is the third national effort by federal agencies, John D. Arterberry, the executive deputy chief of the Justice Department's fraud section, criminal division, said Thursday at the bankers conference.
"This is not going to solve the problem overnight," Arterberry said. "I'm optimistic it's going to be substantially larger than the previous two sweeps."
The number of mortgage-fraud cases being investigated has tripled over the past five years, as soaring demand for loans led to looser underwriting standards, Arterberry said. More than 150 defendants were charged in the 2004 and 2005 operations, Arterberry said.
Mark Steinagel, director of the Utah Division of Real Estate, said the state has implemented various strategies to combat the problem, including developing a mortgage-fraud task force this past fall.
"Mortgage fraud is a problem, and we won't rest until Utah is at the bottom of the list for mortgage fraud," he said.
A mortgage-fraud bill passed last year allows the division to go after not only licensees, but those who are acting as licensees, Steinagel said. That includes mortgage brokers, real estate agents, appraisers or "anyone who commits fraudulent activity and causes this problem of mortgage fraud."
The legislation also increases fines for those convicted of mortgage fraud from $500 per violation to $2,500 per violation or the value the perpetrator received from the fraud. In addition, the agency received approval to bring on another investigator to target mortgage fraud, he said.
As part of its ongoing work, the division said Thursday that it had revoked the licenses of an appraiser and two mortgage brokers for mortgage fraud, and they face administrative fines.
Merle Sharick, a vice president with ChoicePoint Inc., which owns the Mortgage Asset Research Institute, said fraud has become more evident now that the industry is examining loans in foreclosure and default. "When times are good and the market is roaring, fraud is not as evident," he said.Sharick also noted that the industry has traditionally worried more about organized schemes to defraud lenders, rather than borrowers misrepresenting their income. But now, with property values falling, the industry is seeing "a lot more instances" of fraud committed by borrowers who were simply stretching to buy bigger homes and are now stuck with properties they can't afford.
Top states for mortgage fraud
9. New York
Source: Mortgage Asset Research Institute LLC
Contributing: Bloomberg News; Associated Press.