A lot has changed since the housing crash began. But one thing’s still the same. Even though banks have tightened lending, and new regulations are in place, scammers are still finding ways to cheat the system.
Emilio Carrasquillo is giving me a grim kind of tour in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
CARRASQUILLO: Another foreclosure across the street. So you have what, three, four, five foreclosures on this one block.
This South Side neighborhood is dear to Carrasquillo. He heads the local office here for the non-profit Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago. He keeps an eye on real estate listings, and last year he started noticing something strange.
Buildings were selling for crazy amounts of money.
In a neighborhood where banks were unloading properties for $20,000 or $30,000, all of a sudden, buildings were going for 10 or 15 times that. Like this one: A bank sold this boarded-up, graffiti-tagged two-flat for about $35,000 in February 2009 and then:
CARRASQUILLO: It was sold in November of 09 for $315,000 and it went into foreclosure right away, seven months afterwards.
But wait: This round of sales and foreclosures happened after the housing bubble burst. Are banks really falling for this all over again? Turns out Carrasquillo is as surprised as I am.
CARRASQUILLO: How can this be happening again? Who did the appraisal on this? How is it worth $355,000, $370,000, $350,000, $345,000? Where are these prices coming from?
So his housing agency turned over the suspicious transactions to the authorities. People like this guy.
PAUL HOLDEMAN: Paul Holdeman, supervisory special agent with the FBI.
Holdeman won’t comment on the cases Carrasquillo discovered, but says loan fraud like what occurred during the housing boom has definitely continued since the crash. People find straw buyers who submit fake employment information to banks to qualify for big mortgages. Appraisers jack up the values of buildings and once one sells for an inflated amount, it’s easy to justify other ones in the neighborhood at similar prices. The straw buyers never make a payment and the place goes into foreclosure, keeping it unoccupied for months or maybe years.
But I asked Holdeman to tell me about new schemes his agents are seeing.
HOLDEMAN: Now with the downturn in the market, we also see foreclosure rescue schemes which people are taking advantage of individuals in dire straits. And we also see things like short sale frauds, where people are finding themselves underwater, trying to get out of that property so going back to the banks and selling the property for less than what they owe on the mortgage and engaging in fraud schemes there to again extract money from financial institutions.
GROSS: So what are they doing? How does short sale fraud work?
HOLDEMAN: With a short sale fraud - oftentimes they’ll go to a real estate agent to help them sell the property. The real estate agent may get certain offers. Let’s say they have 3 offers. Let’s say they get one for $150,000, one for $175,000 and one for $200,000. They may go to the bank that holds the original mortgage note and tell them, hey, we have an offer for $150,000, that’s the best we have. So the bank says, we’ll review it, all right we’ll go ahead and sell it for $150,000. Then that agent knows they have someone who wanted it for $200,000, they can turn around and work it out to sell it for that after the fact. It all involves deflated appraisals, inflated appraisals and kickbacks behind the scenes and essentially individuals who are not exercising their fiduciary duty and making false statements to the banks.
GROSS: So in that case the bank is not putting out a lot of money in a mortgage - they’re accepting a lot less money than they’re due?
HOLDEMAN: Exactly. That’s exactly what’s going on.
I asked Holdeman why he thinks banks would fall for overinflated appraisals nowadays. They’ve made it harder for your average Joe Schmoe to get a loan, so what’s going on? He says it’s often out-of-state banks that make decisions based mostly on appraisals and loan applications that may be fraudulent, but look good enough to pass muster.
I called Wells Fargo, the bank that made the $315,000 dollar mortgage on the rundown property Carrasquillo pointed out to me. I asked them, what were they thinking? Why did they make that loan? They wouldn’t say.
But they said they reviewed it earlier this year and found a number of problems with the paperwork on that property. So they told the authorities.
And there are a lot of authorities working on mortgage fraud - everyone from the FBI and the Department of Justice to the Illinois attorney general and the Cook County state’s attorney. Matthew Jannusch, an assistant Cook County state’s attorney assigned to the mortgage fraud unit, described some other kinds of schemes they’re seeing. One that seems surprising in its audacity involves people submitting fraudulent title documents for bank-owned properties to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds. Then they break the lock and rent the place out, collecting rent until the bank finally figures out what’s going on and gets the paperwork fixed.
Here’s an excerpt of the conversation with Matthew Jannusch on the new kinds of post-bubble schemes they’re seeing:
For his part, Emilio Carrasquillo of Neighborhood Housing Services says he’s just tired of watching his communities manipulated like some kind of monopoly game. He says, look at that woman over there who’s mowing her grass. She loses out because the buildings around hers are vacant and falling apart all because some people are using them to bilk money out of banks.
CARRASQUILLO: You look at all these regulations and restrictions they’ve put on everyone from banks to loan originators and yet this continues to happen. Obviously something is wrong, something is amiss.
Law enforcement may be making some headway, though. A new mortgage fraud risk report by a company called Interthinx says, in recent months, for the first time in more than a year, none of Chicago’s zip codes were among the top ten most at risk for mortgage fraud in the country.
Still, Paul Holdeman of the FBI has no illusions his job is done. He says real estate is one of those areas where people will always be dreaming up new ways to exploit the system.
And now for this week’s windy indicator, where we take a road less traveled to evaluate the economy.
Today: Hostels, that low-cost lodging for travelers.
Mike Haney runs a real estate investment company called Newcastle Limited. He says the lodging industry was thriving when his company bought Getaway Hostel in Lincoln Park four years ago.
HANEY: End of 2007, beginning of 2008, of course, as the financial crisis really started to unfold, we found that business dropped off here as it did for all lodging properties in Chicago and elsewhere.
But in 2010, things started to turn around. He says in the last year, more people are traveling - an early sign they’re feeling more confident in the economy, even if companies aren’t.
HANEY: We saw an uptick in our business before hotels saw an uptick. Individuals who make decisions to travel can make those decisions much more quickly than businesses typically do.
Haney says bookings at Getaway Hostel are up 40 percent since early 2010. The day I was there, backpackers seemed to check in constantly and groups of Spanish, German and Asian travelers sat around chatting.
Mat Meadows, the guy who manages the hostel day-to-day, says the spike in activity includes some atypical guests, like families and professionals in town for conferences. About half of them forgo the bunk beds and spring for private rooms.
Next week, the windy indicator goes to the opera.