All too often, they have no idea what hit them.
People defrauded of their homes or victimized in other property scams are wracked with despair when they realize they've been conned. Many times, they don't even know how it happened.
"I love to help figure it out," said Glenn Gulley, a real estate fraud investigator with the Stanislaus County district attorney's office. "You get to put all the pieces to a puzzle. There is not a more satisfying job in the world."
Crooks trying to evade Gulley and other local authorities might find themselves running from a much longer arm of the law.
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The FBI, IRS and Secret Service are joining local law enforcement in a united push to counter real estate fraud in the foreclosure-rocked San Joaquin Valley.
District attorney's investigators Mark Smith and Gulley recently were sworn in as special deputy U.S. marshals, with authority to arrest and process sub- poenas far beyond their normal turf in Stanislaus County. W.R. McKenzie, the deputy district attorney heading up their real estate fraud unit, is expect- ed to be "cross-designated" soon as a federal prosecutor.
The Modesto team will have access to better technology and far more vast law enforcement contacts, all in the hopes of curbing real estate crimes in one of the nation's most troubled spots.
"Real estate fraud is rampant throughout the whole Central Valley," said Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager. "People engaging in illegal behavior don't limit their activity to one county. It makes sense to approach the problem on more of a global level."
How bad is it?
Real estate crooks swipe as much as $6 billion a year in the United States, according to the FBI. Last year, authorities logged 63,173 fraud reports. By May of this year, they had logged 40,901. They've opened 965 cases this year, compared with 136 in all of 2004.
In Stanislaus County, Smith and Gulley work 40 open cases at a given time. A list of referrals waiting for them to look at is uncomfortably long.
The real estate boom of recent years created incredible paper wealth, drawing swindlers who specialized in flipping houses, victimizing homeowners and lenders. Smith and Gulley still are sniffing out those cases in addition to Ponzi schemes involving property and bankruptcy fraud and foreclosure rescue scams mounting in the market bust.
These bad guys can do lasting damage with a few keystrokes, the investigators say.
"In some cases, they're taking people's life savings," Smith said.
"What is the most major thing most people own in life? Your house," Mc-Kenzie said. "If you lose that, everything changes for you. And these people are out there destroying people's lives."
The FBI is targeting real estate fraud "because mortgage lending and the housing market have a significant overall effect on the nation's economy," according to the FBI's Web site.
A Modesto man awaiting trial on fraud charges continued bilking resort developers in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida while awaiting trial, authorities say. With no financial backing, Tony Havens collected $330,000 after promising developers loans of up to $10 billion, thrusting some into bankruptcy, according to court documents.
Investigating such cases with multiple victims in several states should come easier with federal muscle, local authorities said. And they'll have more chances of taking local cases to Fresno's federal court in search of stiffer sentences.
"This will give us more options," McKenzie said.
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Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.