In a clear "warning shot" to unscrupulous loan modification consultants two California women have each been sentenced to one year in jail and ordered to repay dozens of homeowners who were charged thousands of dollars in up-front fees for non-existent foreclosure-relief services.
Marianne Curtis, 69, of Costa Mesa and Mary Alice Yraceburu, 46, of Riverdale, had operated Fresno and Orange County-based Foreclosure Freedom. The two, who pleaded guilty last month to 71 criminal counts, including grand theft, conspiracy and unlawful foreclosure consulting, will serve one year in Orange County jail and an additional four years of probation.
"Curtis and Yraceburu shamelessly exploited homeowners desperate to avoid foreclosure, charging up to $1,800 in up-front fees for loan modifications that were never delivered," said Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. "Today's jail sentences send a warning shot to loan-modification consultants: If you swindle homeowners, you face serious time behind bars."
Brown's office initiated its investigation into Curtis and Yraceburu in early 2008 after receiving a complaint from the Tulare County District Attorney. Charges were filed in Orange County Superior Court on March 19, 2009, against the defendants, and both pleaded guilty on March 24, 2010.
Brown's investigation located victims in many California towns and cities: Antelope, Avenal, Bakersfield, Crows Landing, Elk Grove, Fairfield, Fresno, Galt, Hanford, Hayward, Hollister, Kingsburg, Mendota, Modesto, Petaluma, Placerville, Richmond, Ridgecrest, Rio Linda, Sacramento, Salinas, San Leandro, Simi Valley, Stockton, Taft, Vacaville, Vallejo and Ventura.
In addition to the jail sentences, Curtis and Yraceburu were ordered to repay 36 victims a total of $32,040. If eligible victims not named in the complaint come forward, the court can order additional repayment throughout the defendants' probation term.
As a condition of their sentences, both women are also prohibited from any future work in the telemarketing and real estate industries.
Brown's investigation found that from April 2007 until February 2008, the two paid for access to foreclosure listings so they could directly solicit hundreds of homeowners underwater on their mortgages with mailers promising relief.
When homeowners called the number on the mailer, they were told their mortgages could be renegotiated to a lower monthly payment. Victims, however, were required to pay up to $1,800 in up-front fees and were instructed not to contact their lenders.
Victims were assured the company had "private lenders and specialists exclusive to their company who are very experienced in the options and methods used to renegotiate home loans," yet neither of the women who operated the company had real estate licenses, legal training or any experience in the home mortgage market.
Investigators found no evidence they had negotiated any successful loan modifications, and most of the victims were either forced into bankruptcy or lost their homes to foreclosure. Bank account records revealed the defendants took over $120,000 from unsuspecting homeowners.
Both Curtis and Yraceburu pleaded guilty to all 71 criminal counts including:
34 counts of unlawful foreclosure consulting
29 counts of grand theft
seven counts of attempted grand theft
one count of conspiracy
By law, all individuals and businesses offering mortgage-foreclosure consulting or loan-modification and foreclosure-assistance services must register with the attorney general's office and post a $100,000 bond. It is also illegal for loan-modification consultants to charge up-front fees for their services.
Non-profit housing counselors certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provide free help to homeowners. To find a counselor in your area, call 1-800-569-4287.
If you are a California homeowner who has been scammed, contact Brown's office at 1-800-952-5225 or file a complaint online.
Brown has sought court orders to shut down more than 30 fraudulent foreclosure-relief companies and has brought criminal charges and obtained lengthy prison sentences for dozens of other deceptive loan-modification consultants.
Last month, the attorney general won a court judgment that shut down two Orange County-based foreclosure-assistance companies, secured $1 million in restitution for victims and prohibited three individuals from ever working in the real estate industry again.With the housing industry collapse and the recession continuing to take a toll on consumers, states have intensified their crackdown on mortgage fraud.