Archive for June, 2007

Unclaimed Money!
June 28, 2007

Now that I have your attention.

Today’s question comes from a co-worker right here at KPRC Local 2.
This unnamed person received a letter in the mail informing her that she had “unclaimed property” waiting for her to pick up. All she had to do was log onto a website and find out how to access thousands of dollars. Being a smart consumer (and an avid watcher of KPRC Local 2), she knew that she could easily get any unclaimed cash through the Texas State Comptroller’s Office. Here’s where it gets tricky. She typed in www.texascomptroller.com, and came up with a website that appears to be just what it says. Problem is… it’s not. Click around on this site long enough and you’ll discover texascomptroller.com will also charge you to reclaim your lost money or property. And any unsuspecting person trying to go to the right site could be easily fooled. Obviously, that’s the plan.

The real address for the State Comptroller’s Unclaimed property database is this:
http://www.window.state.tx.us/up/

In February, we actually followed up on one of these postcards a producer received claiming she had a “refund” coming to her. Using hidden cameras, we discovered that she did in fact have money owed to her. To find out what the money was from and how she got it without paying a dime, check out the story by clicking this link:
http://www.click2houston.com/investigates/10903974/detail.html

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Apartment Complex Complaints
June 22, 2007

If I had a penny for every e-mail or voice mail message I got about problems with apartment complexes, I would be a rich woman! In April, I compiled a detailed list of what renters can do if those managers refuse to answer your maintenance requests. The latest e-mail I received came from Jennifer on the Southwest side. She says she has a serious leak in her ceiling, mold and carpet that reeks of urine. She says the apartment complex refuses to fix the problems she considers a hazard to her and her children’s health.

Having similar problems? Here’s a link to the story we aired in April that will explain what you can do to get the apartment management’s attention, or, as a last resort, legally get out of your lease.

http://www.click2houston.com/investigates/11606548/detail.html

Have a great weekend!

Cable Wars
June 19, 2007

Today is the official first day of the Comcast take-over in the Houston area. The weeks leading up to the switch from Time Warner to Comcast have left my e-mail inbox filled with questions and complaints from consumers, like this one from Sarah:

“I would just like to say that not everyone is happy with how they are treated by Comcast. People with limited incomes, that can only afford Basic or Standard cable are having channels removed from their lineup, with no reduction in payments. It’s a shame that the ones who are on fixed incomes and have to spend most of their day and night at home can’t afford decent programming.”

Big businesses jumping into the cable television industry are hoping to cash in on the Comcast take-over, by getting out the word that Houstonians do have a choice. Comcast is not your only option for cable.

AT&T spokesman Dan Feldstein told me we have AT&T to thank for Comcast’s decision not to drastically raise prices. How can AT&T take credit? Feldstein says AT&T is now offering cable. It’s called U-Verse. To find out how it works and if it’s available in your area, check out this website: www.uverse.att.com.

Don’t forget other providers like Verizon and all of the Digital and satellite companies too. There are no shortage of cable options out there. We’ll see in the months to come how Houston consumers like Comcast and if this switch will start an all-out war among cable companies battling for our business.

Who dropped the ball?
June 15, 2007

This e-mail came in this week from Laura. She’s in a bit of a bind.

“I was sent a letter from my mortgage co. at the end of April, stating I needed to provide them with insurance information.
I faxed a copy to my agent. I now receive another letter requesting information again. Contacted agent and was told my policy was canceled at the end of 2005 for non payment. I have escrow to pay insurance and taxes. Now I am not an insurance nor banking person, so can you tell me who is responsible for the dropping the ball?”

Laura,
It sounds like the mortgage company dropped the ball, especially if you were paying them enough to cover your insurance payments. If the company is not willing to work with you in getting this mess straightened out, you can report them to the Texas Department of Savings & Mortgage Lending. Here’s the link: www.sml.state.tx.us

Have a great weekend everyone!

Appraiser in Local 2 Mortgage Fraud Investigation Indicted
June 14, 2007

Imagine my surprise when I read this news release today from the U.S. Attorney’s Office:

“FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE MEDIA CONTACT OFFICE
THURSDAY, JUNE 14, 2007
WWW.USDOJ.GOV/USAO/TXS
FIVE INDICTED IN MORTGAGE FRAUD SCHEME
[HOUSTON, TX] – A licensed Texas attorney and real estate developer, a sports agent, two bank loan officers, and a real estate appraiser have been indicted in a multimillion dollar mortgage fraud scheme, United States Attorney Don DeGabrielle, interim Special Agent in Charge Alex J. Turner of the FBI Houston Division, and Special Agent in Charge Daniel P. Salas of the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced today.
Jerome Karam, 44, of Friendswood, TX, a real estate developer and licensed Texas lawyer; Dwight Sean Jones, 44, of Beverly Hills, CA, a former NFL player and sports agent; Tommy Jay Trammel, 44, and David Ranostaj, 40, both of Houston and former loan officers with Southwest Bank of Texas, Bank of Houston and Whitney National Bank, and Jay Westrick, 44, of Houston, a real estate appraiser, have been charged in a 12-count indictment for their alleged involvement in a mortgage fraud scheme that allegedly reached every aspect of a real estate loan: seller, buyer/borrower, loan officer, appraiser, escrow officer, and title company.
All five defendants surrendered this morning at the offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Houston, TX and are expected to appear in federal court before a U. S. Magistrate Judge at 2:00 p.m. today for arraignment and bond consideration.
“Mortgage fraud affects our communities and financial markets, victimizing lenders, homeowners, and others,” said United States Attorney DeGabrielle. “My office has dedicated significant resources to work with our law enforcement partners to detect and prevent mortgage fraud and to prosecute and hold accountable those responsible.”
“Mortgage fraud continues to be a major crime problem here in the Houston area,” said Interim Special Agent in Charge Alex J. Turner of the FBI Houston division. “Mortgage fraud affects everyone and we have seen communities in distress due to excessive foreclosures that impact all of us through lower home values and increased property taxes. The FBI continues to be proactive in combating mortgage fraud through several investigative initiatives to include the Houston Area Mortgage Fraud Task Force. We ask that the public contact us at 713-693-5000 whenever they have any information relating to mortgage fraud.”
The indictment charges the defendants with 12 counts of bank fraud in connection with loans funded by three different banks between 1999 and 2001. The scheme was the same at each bank, according to the indictment – collusion between the seller, buyer/borrower, and lender to lend more money than the property was worth, and thereby reap personal profit. Most properties were appraised by the same appraiser and all closed at the same title company. The indictment alleges the loans to have been made between September 1, 1999 and April 5, 2001, and to have taken place at Southwest Bank of Texas, Bank of Houston, and Whitney National Bank. The value of all the loans made by the Defendants, pursuant to this alleged scheme, totaled more than $42 million.
According to the indictment, Jerome Karam was an attorney and real estate developer who specialized in converting apartments to condominiums. His alleged frequent co-investor was Defendant Sean Jones, a former NFL football player and licensed sports agent for professional athletes. Allegedly, Defendant Jones both invested in many of Karam’s projects, and recruited additional investors from among his professional football player clients.
Defendants Karam and Jones allegedly induced the loans based on false representations as to the value of the property and the distribution of the loan funds. They did so, according to the charges, with the assistance of two former bank loan officers, Defendant Tom Trammell and Defendant David Ranostaj. The two men are accused of facilitating loans to unqualified lenders, and for amounts in excess of the properties’ values, in exchange for loan proceeds diverted to themselves at the closings. They kept their allegedly unlawful conduct a secret from their employers, who were the ultimate lenders.
In order to divert money from closings, Defendants Karam, Jones, Trammell and Ranostaj allegedly created shell corporations, using names that would disguise their true ownership. “Shell corporation” is a term used to describe an entity established with legal formalities which limits the personal liability of its owner(s). One purpose of a shell corporation is to serve as a conduit through which assets pass so as to conceal their true source, ownership, destination or control. For example, the indictment alleges Defendant Karam created a company called Jet Landscaping, which never actually did any business. But at closings where investors or individuals bought condominium units from Karam, he would supposedly include a line-item in the HUD-1 closing statement for substantial fees owed to Jet Landscaping. That money would simply go into Defendant Karam’s hands, according to the indictment. The line-item disbursements were hidden from the lenders.
Defendant Jay Westrick, a licensed appraiser, is alleged to have prepared false and inflated real estate appraisals to further the scheme. Westrick allegedly wrote appraisals in amounts dictated by Defendant Karam, without regard to independent analysis or the standards of conduct for licensed real estate appraisers.
A closing statement is a document in a loan transaction which reflects the agreement between the lender and the borrower/buyer as to distribution of the loan proceeds. Closing statements are customarily on a form called HUD-1. The closing statement/HUD-1 contains an acknowledgment that it is a federal crime to knowingly make false statements thereon, and that the title company will disburse funds accordingly. Specifically, Defendant Karam allegedly directed that the signature page of the lender approved closing statement/HUD-1 be attached to a closing statement/HUD-1 with a different distribution of the seller’s funds. Thus, according to the indictment, the lenders were left to rely on the prior, fraudulently certified, closing statements/HUD-1s in deciding whether to fund the loans and in reviewing their loan portfolio.
The indictment charges each defendant with 12 counts of bank fraud each of which carries, upon convicted, a possible sentence of up to 30 years imprisonment, and a possible fine of up to $1 million
The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Inspector General, and is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Cynthia DeGabrielle.
An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. Defendants are presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law. “

KPRC Local 2 Investigates first told you about appraiser Jay Westrick in an in-depth piece about mortgage fraud in July 2006. You can watch the story here:
http://www.click2houston.com/news/9584679/detail.html

As we explained in the story, Westrick falsely appraised a home one of the women in our story was duped into buying. She took out a $650,000 mortgage on a home Westrick told her was 3368 square feet. We sent in an independent appraiser and discovered the home was actually only 2242 square feet and worth about $200,000 less!

As you’ll see in the story, we stopped by Westrick’s Greenspoint area office, but he slipped out a back door (actually told us “Mr. Westrick” was inside and walked the other way). At the time of our story, the Texas Appraiser Licensing and Certification Board was investigating Westrick in another case.

So why am I so surprised at today’s indictment? We encouraged the victim in our story to file a report with the FBI and the Harris County District Attorney. She did. No one even bothered to call her back! I called her today for an update and to tell her Westrick had been indicted in another case. She told me the house Westrick appraised fell into foreclosure. (He also appraised the home next door someone else had purchased. That one is in foreclosure too). She’s in her 60’s, a grandmother, with this scar on her credit report. No one would help her.

Of course, I plan to call the FBI again and remind them that their office already knew of two other mortgage fraud cases reported to them where Westrick was involved.

If you suspect mortgage fraud in your neighborhood, or think you’ve unknowingly become involved in a mortgage fraud scheme in Harris County, file a complaint with one or both of these agencies:

Harris County District Attorney’s Office
Special Crimes
(713) 755-4519

FBI Mortgage Fraud Task Force
(713) 693-5000