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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

J.B. Van Hollen: Tackling white collar crime


By J.B. Van Hollen
White collar crime includes many species of fraud and dishonest conduct such as mortgage and bank fraud, embezzlement, identity theft, securities fraud, elder financial abuse, credit card fraud, and various Internet schemes, just to name a few. Although white collar crimes are termed "non-violent," the effects can be devastating. They can destroy victims' homes, jobs, life savings, and credit. They can even destroy entire businesses, charities or other organizations, and can usurp public funds that could have benefited those in need.

For example, my office is currently prosecuting a former title agent in Wausau for running an alleged scam in which the agent pocketed homeowners' money that was supposed to pay off their home loans when they were refinancing their mortgages. As a result, the homeowners, unbeknownst to them, became obligated to pay two mortgage loans. The total loss was alleged to be approximately one million dollars, and one homeowner ended up in foreclosure for non-payment of the first loan.

Unfortunately, people in economic distress are vulnerable to predatory criminals. Now more than ever, due to the recent mortgage and foreclosure crisis, homeowners are falling victim to these schemes. Wisconsin, like the rest of the country, has experienced a sharp spike in foreclosures. When foreclosure leads to a decrease in property values, or in some cases blighted neighborhoods due to abandoned properties, the entire community and state suffer.

Criminals are taking advantage of this crisis, and we have seen an increase in fraudulent schemes that falsely promise help in modifying loan terms so that a homeowner can avoid foreclosure. In a current case my office is investigating, a Wisconsin couple paid thousands of dollars to a fraudulent out-of-state business, thinking the money was going to the bank to help pay down their home loan. Now the homeowners are even further behind on their mortgage payments and at dire risk of foreclosure.

Unfortunately, white collar crimes can be difficult to investigate and prosecute. The crimes may be concealed in complex financial transactions and records, or may involve perpetrators from other states or even other countries. Cases can be time-consuming and resource-intensive to prosecute.

To enhance the ability of the Wisconsin law enforcement community to respond vigorously to white collar crime, my office is conducting a White Collar Crimes Investigation School in early March. The purpose of the training is to train investigators and prosecutors from around the state to handle specific forms of white collar crime, from mortgage fraud to Internet-based crime to elder financial abuse. Staff from our Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), joined by local and federal investigators and prosecutors, will conduct the training. Funding for the training is being provided through Wisconsin's share of the national mortgage foreclosure settlement.

As attorney general, I place a high priority on vigorously enforcing our laws and bringing white collar criminals to justice. The Department of Justice will continue its commitment to working with local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to maximize their ability to aggressively respond to white collar crime in their Wisconsin communities.

-- Van Hollen, a Republican, is Wisconsin's attorney general.

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