In California's Merced, real estate fraud schemes flourish

In late spring of this year Anna Hazel, an investigator with the Merced County District Attorney's Office real estate fraud unit, walked into a room full of people who'd either lost their homes or were on the road to ruin.

More than 100 people in Atwater's Community Center told stories that Hazel has heard many times since 2008 when the D.A. joined with the San Joaquin Real Estate Fraud Task Force, headed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The stories she heard went like this: A homeowner is in over his head and foreclosure looms. He's been trying to find a way out, to no avail. Finally, at wit's end, he's approached by a smiling face that tells him for a few thousand dollars -- up front -- his problems can be solved.

Many of the cases that Hazel has seen are perpetrated by people who say just that. In one such case -- successfully prosecuted because of her unit's investigation -- the defendant promised 30 victims that he'd bail them out of their foreclosures. But after he got paid, he took the money and ran. He now owes restitution of more than $500,000.

"We are seeing a variety of different fraud schemes," said Hazel. "Most are advanced fee loan modifications and advanced fee home foreclosure rescues."

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