A good time to be a white-collar criminal?

Possible mortgage loan fraud spikes, but pursuit of white-collar crime slows

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The Securities and Exchange Commission has said that it failed to pursue a variety of allegations about Bernard Madoff’s alleged Ponzi scheme, which may have cost investors as much as $50 billion. But that admission may be part of a larger problem, according to recent statistics: the government’s apparent laxity in investigating various white-collar crimes. Case in point: mortgage fraud.

A division of the Treasury Department known as the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, by law gets reports from banks about possible mortgage loan fraud incidents they have spotted. Banks reported 4,696 suspected mortgage fraud incidents in 2001, but that ballooned over 10 times to 52,868 in 2007, according to an April 2008 FinCEN report.

These reports do not mean a crime has been committed, but they can lead to criminal investigations.

However, the FBI’s work in pursuing white-collar cases, which include mortgage fraud and various other crimes, has dropped dramatically since 2001. There has been a nearly 82 percent drop in white-collar criminal prosecutions between 2001 and 2007, the Syracuse University-based Transactional Records and Access Clearinghouse found, using Justice Department data. (Justice only recently started breaking out mortgage fraud cases.)

Part of that drop can be explained by the post-9/11 diversion of the FBI resources to national security. Since 2001, there has been a 36 percent drop in the number of agents assigned to white-collar crime, causing the FBI to struggle in investigating mortgage fraud and other white-collar crimes, according to The New York Times. Over approximately the same time period, the issuance of subprime loans grew dramatically.

Though few of the reports to FinCEN mention what kind of loans were in question, “subprime mortgage issues remain a key factor in influencing mortgage fraud directly and indirectly,” the FBI stated in a 2007 report. And as early as 2004, the FBI took note of the consequences that questionable mortgage lending could have on the economy.

“The potential impact of mortgage fraud on financial institutions and the stock market is clear,” Chris Swecker, former FBI assistant director, testified before Congress in 2004. “If fraudulent practices become systemic within the mortgage industry and mortgage fraud is allowed to become unrestrained, it will ultimately place financial institutions at risk and have adverse effects on the stock market.”

But some question whether the government did enough, despite the FBI’s acknowledgement of the problem.

Incoming Florida Representative Alan Grayson, a Democrat, whose state has been particularly impacted by the housing crisis, said, “I can’t recall a single case they prosecuted regarding these [subprime] loans.”

“It’s as if a building was burning down right next to the fire station,” he said, “and the fire department claimed it didn’t notice.”

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