From the beginning of the housing meltdown, Nevada has been among the hardest-hit states when it comes to foreclosures. With so many homeowners in distress, unscrupulous operators have moved in to exploit the situation.

"Nevada's standing as number one in home foreclosures in the nation has made us a ripe target for mortgage fraud scammers," said Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.

But Masto is fighting back, in part with a $1,700,500 grant from the U.S. Office of Justice Program. The money will enable the Mortgage Fraud Unit within the Nevada Office of the Attorney General to expand services to deal with Nevada's mortgage fraud and vacant property crimes.

"The money will assist my Mortgage Fraud Unit in investigating and prosecuting the more than 200 companies for which we've received complaints from Nevadans," Masto said. "These complaints average 50 per company and in some cases, they number into the hundreds."

More investigations

The grant will enable the unit to increase the number of cases investigated and prosecuted, increase the amount of funds recovered through restitution for victims and create a plan to sustain the program after grant funds have been exhausted. To date, the Office of the Attorney General has been working in partnership with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, federal prosecutors, local law enforcement and state and community agencies to investigate and prosecute mortgage fraud cases.

The unit has criminal litigation files open against 18 loan modification companies in Clark County, Nev. An additional 51 cases have been designated for civil handling and are at various states of prosecution.

In the past 12 months, the Mortgage Fraud Unit has executed 15 search warrants and presented 14 large scale mortgage fraud and loan modification cases to the grant jury - each involving hundreds of victims and thousands of pages of documentary evidence.

The unit has obtained indictments against 20 mortgage fraud defendants for a combined total of 128 felonies. It has successfully obtained convictions against nine defendants to date, resulting in seven felony convictions, four gross misdemeanor convictions and one misdemeanor conviction for mortgage fraud related crimes.

More than $300,000 for victims

Prosecutions have resulted in restitution orders totaling more than $306,332 payable to victims. The unit currently has 10 cases awaiting jury trial against 12 defendants. Over 184 cases are pending investigation.

Masto said the ongoing investigations have uncovered a wide range of wrong-doing. Utilizing a number of state laws, she has prosecuted cases ranging from forgery; embezzlement; obtaining money by false pretenses; false, deceptive or misleading advertising; deceptive practices; money laundering and racketeering.

In 2007 the Nevada legislation passed a mortgage fraud law, expanding the kinds of activities that have come under investigation.

While investigating mortgage fraud cases, Masto's office has also uncovered extenuating issues and multiple criminal activities including organized crime; racketeering; overseas call centers; use of offshore bank accounts; international extradition issues; large scale, sophisticated forgery and identity theft; fake social security cards; fake drivers licenses; homes and vehicle purchased illegally and leased to members of an organized prostitution ring; drugs; child pornography; a possible homicide; misuse of overseas Swiss bank accounts; international fraudulent transactions with investors from overseas companies; and an individual on the United Kingdom's top ten most wanted list.