SAN FRANCISCO -- A criminal investigation into mortgage swindlers has expanded beyond deceptive advertising on Google's Internet search engine to root out con artists who were luring their victims on Bing and Yahoo, too.
Monday's news of the widening probe confirmed that the Internet's three largest search engines had been turned into tools of prey for crooks looking to bilk homeowners scrambling to avoid foreclosure. The scams involved online ads which make bogus promises to help people hold onto their homes through a government-backed program to modify mortgage payments.
After finding their victims by using ads triggered by phrases such as "stop foreclosure," the swindlers extracted upfront fees or arranged to have the mortgage payments sent them without providing any assistance. The ruses had become increasingly common.
The crackdown had shuttered 125 mortgage scams by Monday, up from 85 last week, when the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program announced that it was cleaning up the misconduct on Google. The U.S. Treasury Department division said many of the con artists bought ads on all three search engines.
The identities of the alleged swindlers haven't been disclosed, partly because the criminal investigation is still open. A spokesman for agency steering the investigation declined to provide further details Monday.
Like Google Inc., Microsoft Corp.'s Bing search engine agreed to stop accepting ads from hundreds of Internet advertisers and agencies tied to the scams. The ban also applies to Yahoo Inc., because it depends on Microsoft to sell its search advertising as part of a revenue-sharing partnership.
"Microsoft is committed to preventing fraud within its advertising network and online community and is working closely with the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program to help tackle the problem of fraudulent mortgage-modification advertising," the software maker said in a statement.
The mortgage scams are the latest example of marketing malfeasance on large Internet advertising networks. Critics have complained that the largely automated systems for buying ads next to Internet search results are vulnerable to abuse and that the companies running them aren't doing enough to screen the marketing pitches before they appear on websites.
The criminal investigation into fraudulent mortgage ads is surfacing three months after Google agreed to pay $500 million to avoid prosecution in Rhode Island on charges that it profited from online ads by Canadian pharmacies that illegally sold drugs in the U.S.
Consumer Watchdog, a group that published a study about mortgage ad scams nine months ago, is calling for criminal charges and financial penalties against the major search engines in the current investigation.
"These Internet company executives were active enablers of fraud against vulnerable homeowners," said John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's privacy project. "They cannot be allowed to benefit from these ill-gotten gains."
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Metro movers index: 1.87
Median home price: $142,000
Home value decline from peak: -53.4%
Forecast change in home price through 2Q 2012: -11.4%
Like most of the state of Florida, the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford statistical area was hit hard by the housing crisis. More than one in five homes in the region is vacant, and more than half of all owned homes are now worth less than the mortgages on them. Real estate prices have declined 53.4% since the 2006 peak. By the second quarter of next year, Fiserv projects median home values will decline an additional 11.4%. For every person in the region looking for a home elsewhere, 1.87 people are looking at real estate in the area.
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Metro movers index: 1.88
Median home price: $135,000
Home value decline from peak: -59.2% (8th biggest decline)
Unemployment: 13.6% (13th highest)
Forecast change in home price through 2Q 2012: -15.9% (2nd biggest decline)
Almost two out of every three homes with a mortgage in the Las Vegas-Paradise metropolitan area is underwater — meaning the home is worth less than the mortgage on it. This is, by far, the highest rate in the country, and it is 10 percentage points greater than the metro area with the second highest rate. Since the first quarter of 2006, the median home value has dropped nearly 60% in this statistical area, and it is expected to drop another 15.9% by the middle of next year. Nearly 40% of the homes sold in the area had previously been foreclosed upon.
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This cozy home is an economical choice whose low price sheds light on just how much of a hit Vegas took from the housing meltdown. The home offers mountain views, neat landscaping, ample lighting, access to a community pool and exercise facilities, marble kitchen countertops, a two-car garage, a backyard patio and an decent supply of appliances.
Metro movers index: 1.92
Median home price: $400,000 (9th highest)
Home value decline from peak: -39.9%
Forecast change in home price through 2Q 2012: -6%
The Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura area of California forms part of the Los Angeles suburbs, and is one of the wealthier regions in the country. It also features some of the most expensive and desirable retirement homes in the country. The median home value is $400,000 — the ninth-highest in the U.S. But even that high price is nearly 40% down from its peak in the second quarter of 2006. Foreclosures in the region are up 24% from last quarter. Many wealthy individuals close to retirement are looking to this area for second homes at bargain prices.
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Location: Ventura, Calif.
Sq Ft: 1,878
Ventura, Calif. is a tad more upscale than some other buying hotspots, so it follows that homes are costlier. This 1,878-square-foot single family features a garage, patio and fenced backyard.
Metro movers index: 1.97
Median home price: n/a
Home value decline from peak: -5.9%
Forecast change in home price through 2Q 2012: +2.7%
Fort Worth is unlike most of the areas on our list in some key respects. It is the only one of the 10 where home prices are expected to rise by the second quarter of next year, and the only city with an unemployment rate below the national average. The subprime mortgage crisis appears to have completely missed the Fort Worth area altogether. Home prices are down just 5.9% from their peak in 2009. According to Trulia, the biggest reason for the high rate of inbound searches is the large number of people looking to move from the nearby city of Dallas.
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This new traditional offers quite a bit of space for its price tag and enjoys some charming landscaping. The home shows just how much bang for your buck home buyers enjoy if they opt for this city in the Lone Star State.
Metro movers index: 1.99
Median home price: $205,000
Home value decline from peak: -50.2%
Forecast change in home price through 2Q 2012: -9.6% (19th biggest decline)
Homes in the West Palm beach area are worth less than half what they were before the recession. Many people have been unable to sell their homes, especially as values are projected by Fiserv to decline an additional 9.6% by the second quarter of 2012. Last year, West Palm Beach had more listings than all but a handful of major U.S. cities. However, inventory will likely be drawn down as foreclosures decline and people begin purchasing dirt-cheap real estate. Nearly one in four of the home sales in the region in the last 12 months was on a formerly foreclosed upon home.
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You can live on the water for just over $200K if you purchase this gleaming, tile-floored condo. The unit offers three bedrooms and access to facilities including an expansive swimming pool and tennis courts.
Metro movers index: 2.09
Median home price: $106,000
Home value decline from peak: -59.3% (7th biggest drop)
Forecast change in home price through 2Q 2012: -12.2% (6th biggest decrease)
There is arguably no single housing market with a worse outlook than southwest Florida, and Cape Coral-Fort Myers is the hardest-hit area. Housing prices here have already dropped 59.3% from their peak, and Fiserv projects a further decline of 12.2% by the second quarter of next year. According to Corelogic, 47% of the homes in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area are worth less than their mortgages. Foreclosures have increased 35% in the last quarter. However, the long-term outlook may be better than these figures suggest. Real estate agents are giving “foreclosure tours” to show homes that are now worth 40% or less of what they were just five years ago, and the number of people looking for homes in the area is nearly double the number looking to leave.
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Metro movers index: 2.15
Median home price: $199,000
Home value decline from peak: -48.4%
Forecast change in home price through 2Q 2012: -9.2%
Just five years ago, the median home price in the greater Fort Lauderdale area was nearly $400,000. As of last quarter, it was less than $200,000, and still falling. Prices are projected to fall an additional 9.2% by the middle of next year. The area is, however, one of the most popular retirement destinations in the country, and many see the current lows as an opportunity to purchase a cheap second home.
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Metro movers index: 2.25
Median home price: $200,000
Home value decline from peak: -23.3%
Forecast change in home price through 2Q 2012: -1.6%
The Charleston-North Charleston area saw home prices drop nearly 23% since the 2007 peak. Nearly 10% of homes are vacant — one of the highest rates in the country. Charleston has been, and remains, a popular retirement destination. According to Trulia, most of the people looking at homes in Charleston are from other parts of the state and other southern cities.
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Sheesh, that's a lot of room for $200K! The home sits on a quarter-acre landscaped lot and enjoys vistas of a nearby river viewable from the home's backyard porch. The interior has vaulted ceilings and hardwood floors.
Metro movers index: 4.36
Median home price: $180,000
Home value decline from peak: -55.4% (14th biggest decline)
Unemployment: 13.4% (15th highest)
Forecast change in home price through 2Q 2012: -14.8% (3rd biggest decline)
This is one of the largest metropolitan statistical areas in the U.S. It also has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country — 13.4%. Poor economic conditions have led to a massive drop of over 55% since home prices peaked in 2006. Prices are projected to fall an additional 14.8% by the second quarter of 2012. The area has had massive foreclosures in the past few years, and nearly 40% of the homes sold in the last 12 months were previously foreclosed upon.
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Metro movers index: 6.03
Median home price: $170,000
Home value decline from peak: -51.4%
Forecast change in Home price through 2Q 2012: -6.5%
Last quarter, the rate of foreclosures in the North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota area jumped 57%, the third-greatest increase in the country. Since the first quarter of 2006, home prices have dropped 51.4%. Foreclosures are likely to increase for some time unless economic conditions improve, as 40.84% of regional homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. Further, prices are expected to drop an additional 6.5% by the second quarter of next year. For every person looking to leave the area, six others are searching for homes here.
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At $88 per square foot this home -- which may have given its builder quite the headache since it was constructed just prior to housing meltdown -- seems like quite a bargain. It offers the usuals and a two-car garage. Throw some palm trees into the mix too.