Ten arrested in $8 million Florida mortgage fraud operation

Ten arrested in $8 million Florida mortgage fraud operationThe Florida Department of Law Enforcement last week arrested 10 members of a criminal mortgage fraud and identity theft ring charged with swindling banks out of more than $8 million.

The department had been investigating the operation for the past four years. The scheme involved recruiting "straw buyers," people who were provided with fake Florida and New Jersey driver's licenses and other personal identification information. With those identities, the participants could obtain credit and buy property. But rather than take on the debt, the properties were resold or "flipped" numerous times.

According to investigators, the operation included stealing property from legitimate owners. The scammers would forge a quit claim deed or warranty deed and transfer it to one of their own. Quit claim deeds attest to an owner of a property giving up ownership, while warranty deeds demonstrate the holder owns a property free of any burden. In doing so, the fraud ring obtained mortgages of 14 different properties in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. The mortgage loans on most of these properties weren't paid, so they are now in foreclosure.

Since March, the federal government has reported the arrests of hundreds involved in mortgage fraud nationwide. Last month, U.S. Attorney Eric Holder said nearly $11 million had been recovered in what is being called Operation Stolen Dreams.

Those arrested in Florida include: Michelle Minikus, 40, of Hollywood; Donald Lee, 55, of Deerfiled Beach; Stephnine (sic) Jean, 28, of Hialeah; Judith Clemow, 48, of Miami; Lise Bessette, 57, of Deerfield Beach; Brandi Brown, 26, of Miramar; Wesley Grant, 46, of Miramar; Wonder Ragin Knowles, 52, of Coconut Creek; Magaly Rosa, 43, of Miami and Ofelia Torres, 51, of Hialeah Garden.

Four other defendants -- Oliver Gayle, Keturah Ferguson, Jorge Villanueva and George Powers -- were arrested earlier this year. Another person, Theophilus Alcantara, was arrested in 2006. Gayle and Ferguson have pled guilty to racketeering charges and the other two are awaiting trial.

Kristen Chernosky, an FDLE spokeswoman, told Consumer Ally no new arrests have been made and the investigation is ongoing.
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