It's the ultimate crime of opportunity.
The recent real estate boom was a magnet for swindlers who specialized in flipping houses, victimizing homeowners and lenders.
Then housing prices tanked, and with the plunge came a crop of desperate homeowners ripe to be ripped off.
"It became such a huge crime so suddenly," said Deputy District Attorney W.R. McKenzie, who prosecutes real estate fraud with the Stanislaus County district attorney's office.
McKenzie said his focus has shifted from prosecuting people who
take out "liar loans" -- inflating their salaries on applications to get into their dream home -- to con artists who make a living bilking thousands of dollars from unsuspecting investors through real estate scams.
Some of those convicted have been employees of mortgage companies or banks with no prior criminal offenses. Others are career cons.
Among the most egregious cases is that of Bounthavy Manivong, accused of stealing $1 million from roughly 35 victims who believed they were giving Manivong money to invest in properties.
"He just took the money and spent it," McKenzie said.
Manivong faces five years in state prison when he is sentenced April 19 after pleading no contest to five counts of identity theft and one count of tax evasion.
Defense attorney Kirk McAllister said more people are trying to recoup their losses from business deals gone sour through criminal prosecution rather than filing lawsuits that cost them time and money.
"In better economic times, a lot of these disagreements over business deals were simply regarded as matters for the civil courts," McAllister said.
Among other recent cases prosecuted by the district attorney's office:
Hector Leonel Picart, who posed as a mortgage broker, was sentenced to four years in prison Monday for taking $18,500 from an elderly victim to put into escrow for the purchase of a home. Picart cashed the check and kept the money. Picart agreed to return the money to the victim but wrote two bad checks. He pleaded no contest to one count of grand theft.
Selena Corral pleaded no contest Feb. 1 to one count of grand theft after she cashed a man's refinancing check that left the victim with a second mortgage and Corral with a $5,000 windfall. She will be sentenced April 12.
David George and Lorna Martin were working at a brokerage firm and a bank when they forged documents to take out fraudulent loans with the hope of earning a commission. They were sentenced to four months in jail for grand theft.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.