NEWARK —Three members of an alleged mortgage fraud scheme that falsely promised to help homeowners facing foreclosure keep their homes and repair their damaged credit were arrested this week on wire fraud conspiracy charges, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced.
Ronald Harris Jr. ,40, of West Orange; Sterling Bruce, 36, of Old Bridge, and Sabir Muhammad, 46, of South Plainfield., were arrested on June 22 by postal inspectors of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) and special agents of the FBI. The defendants are charged by complaint with conspiring to commit wire fraud in a scheme which allegedly defrauded numerous mortgage lenders of over $10 million, making $1.5 million for themselves by causing dozens of fraudulently obtained loans to be made between 2005 and 2008.
According to the complaint filed in Newark federal court, Harris is the owner and operator of Harris Capital and Skyline Capital Group, both of which held themselves out as foreclosure rescue companies and operated out of offices in Newark and later, Maplewood. Harris and Bruce allegedly promised to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, keep their homes and repair their damaged credit by directing the homeowners to allow title to their homes to be put in the names of third party purchasers (the “straw buyers”) for approximately six month to a year. During this time, the defendants allegedly promised to help the homeowners obtain more favorable mortgages and improve their credit ratings. The homeowners were allegedly told that the titles to their homes would be returned to them.
After the homeowners were signed up, Harris, Bruce, and Muhammad allegedly recruited individuals with good credit scores to act as straw buyers of the distressed properties. The straw buyers were allegedly told that they were helping someone save their home and that they would make money when they sold the property back to the current owner after approximately one year. The defendants then applied for mortgages in the name of the straw buyers to extract the equity from the homes, according to the complaint.
To increase the credit-worthiness of the straw buyers and to ensure that they would be approved for the loans, the defendants allegedly submitted loan applications containing false personal and financial information about the straw buyers, such as misstating their employment, income and assets. For example, many of the straw buyers’ loan applications stated that they worked for one of Harris’ companies making a substantial salary—though the straw buyers had never been employed by Harris or one of his companies, according to the complaint. Fraudulent supporting documents were regularly submitted with the loan applications to support the false statements, such as fake employment records and fake investment account statements, according to the complaint.
Fraudulent settlement statements were also prepared that indicated the buyers had paid large sums of money to the sellers at the closings, though the straw buyers never paid any money in connection with the transactions, according to the complaint. To further the scheme, fraudulent checks were regularly submitted with the closing documents to make it look as though the buyers had paid the required amount, according to the complaint.
Prior to the closings of these fraudulent transactions, Harris and Bruce regularly filed fraudulent liens on the properties, usually for tens of thousands of dollars and in the name of one of Harris’ or Bruce’s shell companies, according to the complaint. At the closing of the transactions, the liens would be paid off with the proceeds of the fraudulently obtained loans and Harris and Bruce would enrich themselves, according to the complaint. With money derived from the scheme, Harris spent tens of thousands of dollars on golf and golf equipment, electronics and clothing, according to the complaint.
In addition to recruiting straw buyers, Muhammad also sold a property to a straw buyer as part of the scheme and caused his wife to act as a straw buyer to purchase a property, according to the complaint. For his role, Muhammad was paid thousands of dollars for each person he recruited, as well as over $14,000 in connection with his fraudulent sale, according to the complaint.
Each of the defendants is charged with wire fraud conspiracy, which carries a maximum potential penalty of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
U.S. Attorney Fishman credited postal inspectors of the USPIS, under the direction of Inspector in Charge David Collins, and special agents of the FBI, under the direction of Special Agent in charge Michael B. Ward, with the investigation leading to the criminal Complaint. Fishman added that the investigation is ongoing.
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