Somewhere, presumably Georgia, lives a woman named Linda Green. According to investigators, her signature - and variations of it - appears on hundreds of thousands of questionable mortgage documents.
Linda Green has an impressive résumé. She has been a vice president of at least 14 banks and mortgage companies, including Wells Fargo and Bank of America. The documents with her signature are called mortgage assignments. By signing, she attests to the true owner of a mortgage, which proves that a bank has the right to foreclose on a home.
One of those homes belongs to Lynn Szymoniak, a Palm Beach Gardens lawyer who specializes in white-collar crime. Szymoniak, 61, has ferreted out economic crimes for years and federal prosecutors have called her as an expert witness in four trials. In July 2008, after negotiations with her lender over an increase to her adjustable-rate mortgage failed, she received foreclosure papers on her home.
What she saw "made no sense."
The company servicing her mortgage was in Dallas. Linda Green was in Alpharetta, Ga. S zymoniak launched an investigation of her own foreclosure.
"I did what I often do in cases," Szymoniak said. "I find other documents that have been signed by the same person." What she saw at the Palm Beach County Courthouse made her suspicious. She expanded her investigation of Linda Green to other counties: "Then I hit the mother lode ."
Linda Green's signature varied widely in thousands of documents Szymoniak found. Szymoniak had uncovered the practice of robo-signing: employees at banks and mortgage servicing companies who sign sworn affidavits without any knowledge of the case. Linda Green is believed to be among the most common robo-signatures of them all.
"I have had training in this, but you don't need training," Szymoniak said. "It's obvious to anyone that many people are signing for Linda Green."
Lender Process Services Inc. confirmed that Green worked for its defunct subsidiary, Docx LLC, and does not now work for LPS. The Florida Attorney General's Office is investigating LPS in connection with documents that "appear to be forged, incorrectly and illegally executed and false and misleading."
Often, as in Szymoniak's case, Green's mortgage assignment was dated months after the case was filed, bringing into question the true owner of the note when the foreclosure proceedings began. Another document in her case was a copy of what appeared to be the top of her mortgage pasted to the bottom of another document.
As Szymoniak sees it, she has been the victim of at least four foreclosure schemes: Robo-signing. Forgery. Bogus documents. Fraud.
Szymoniak believes legions of distressed homeowners are being victimized by other methods that are tough to uncover and even tougher to avoid.
Indeed, 43,428 homes in Palm Beach County were in some stage of foreclosure last year, according to RealtyTrac.
"I wasn't surprised," former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum said about the breadth, quantity and ingenuity of foreclosure fraud reported throughout the state. Since 2008, the Florida Attorney General's Office has launched more than 150 mortgage fraud investigations. Seventy remain open, and more than 50 companies are still under review
The bulk of the attorney general's ongoing investigations involve consultants and companies that collect upfront fees to assist with loan modifications. Upfront fees are illegal. Fees may be collected only after services are completed.
"It's been clear for some time that there are people out there who are very creative," McCollum said. "These people were associated with the industry in good times, and they know how to make money in this."
Another explanation for the magnitude of the fraud is that some participants - the robo-signers and notaries - may not even be aware they are participating, said William Kovacic, who serves on the Federal Trade Commission and has studied the psychology of white-collar criminals.
"If the true nature were revealed in an unvarnished way, a number of people would refuse to participate," Kovacic said. "Part of the effort of the people who orchestrate these frauds is to assure the subordinates that what is taking place is legitimate."
Even when they learn of the scheme, they are so far removed from the victim that they feel little remorse or responsibility, Kovacic said
"The most clever schemes actually provide some useful service to the victim. Now and then they do reduce a debt that is owed or they do provide a forbearance on the loan," Kovacic said. For the low-level but essential participants in the scheme, the rare act of goodwill becomes "an element of legitimacy 'Ah, we're not so bad.' "
The complexity of foreclosure makes it difficult for distressed homeowners to recognize something is wrong. Even the most benign task can be a fraud. Take the case of Earnest Harpster, a Pasco County homeowner facing foreclosure in 2010.
Harpster's attorney discovered the mortgage assignment had been notarized with a stamp