PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona regulators are cracking down on escrow officers for skimming hundreds of thousands of dollars off home sales as part of a wave of mortgage fraud that has hit the state.
Regulators are concerned that more escrow officers are stealing from their employers and homeowners and that others may be tied to mortgage fraud, a category of white-collar crime that has exploded across the country.
In “cash-back” schemes, inflated appraisals are used to secure home loans for more than the actual sales price. The buyer, appraiser, mortgage broker and real estate agent typically split the extra cash.
The deals can artificially inflate home values and leave homeowners and lenders with loans for more than a house is worth.
Regulators are now looking at escrow officers because they can be part of the scams.
“Some Arizona escrow agents may think no one is watching, but the convictions are mounting,” said Richard Hagar, a national fraud expert and appraiser in Washington.
So far this year, five escrow officers in the state have been banned from the industry for writing unauthorized checks out of home-sale funds. In the past decade, maybe one or two escrow officers were banned from the industry every year.
“We are going after the ones who think they can just divert those funds and then move from firm to firm thinking they won’t get caught,” said Felecia Rotellini, superintendent of the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions, which launched a task force late last year to go after mortgage fraud.
Rotellini said in the past year, one escrow officer stole almost $500,000 and got her unemployed daughter a home loan. Another embezzled $61,000 from funds that were supposed to go to homeowners’ mortgage payments.
Escrow firms exist to make sure everything in a contract is done right and everyone involved in the transaction is paid the right amount from a home sale’s proceeds. The firms have to make up any money stolen from the proceeds of a transaction.