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Fraud Tales from the Heart

March 10, 2009

Five Steps to Prison
by Jerome Mayne

“How many times do we have to hear yet another felon talk about how he committed a crime, went to prison and how it just wasn’t worth it.” It would be great if the answer to that question was: Not much longer.

But that doesn’t appear to be the case since arrests for mortgage fraud are still on the rise. We keep feeding the felon pool. So you’re probably going to hear more and more and more from us.

Some of us felons care about the rise of white collar crime, the image of our (former) industry and the damage it does and has done to unsuspecting victims. I, as it turns out, I also care that you don’t have to walk down the same shameful destructive path I did – post crime. And to address the white elephant, some of us also make a living now at risk mitigation, fraud consulting and public speaking.

Many of us have a perception of what fraud is. Fraud is the fifty bazillion dollar losses incurred through a network of brokers, appraisers, underwriters and closers. We are lulled into the belief that dollar amounts and publicity define fraud. To our co-workers and colleagues we regurgitate the CNN reports and comment on blogs, on how “those despicable So-n-Sos” are disgracing corporate America.

Well, your reiteration of the news and its despicableness (wow, spell check didn’t catch me on that one – big surprise, I’m excited that I got away with something) do fall into the fraud category. But it doesn’t end there.

Fraud is not just major news stories and multi-million dollar crimes. Fraud does not have to be profitable, or successful to be a crime. I know this because I met a few unsuccessful, broke, white collar convicts in the houscow.

How did I get there? I didn’t start out with a scheme or a plan, but I definitely got involved and was one in the minority of the inmates who admitted that I did it.

In 1994 I was in real estate finance – large national lender. I was approached by a group of investors who were buying and selling homes. Over the course of 7 months, I did loans for their end buyers suspecting that their documentation was not on the up-and-up.

A few months into this relationship, I started getting a couple hundred bucks here and there for “looking the other way.” I eventually got in on a transaction and made $10,000 on a sale to a borrower I knew was made of straw. I found out years later that all of those loans defaulted, which resulted in over $200,000 in losses.

After my $10,000 transaction, I cut from this group and quit my job for fear I would get fired. Over the course of the next four years I founded and grew a real estate investment company and a mortgage company. Believe it or not, my companies were squeaky clean – the employees who got fired for mere impropriety could vouch for this.

At the end of 1998, four years after my association with the “real estate investors”, I was arrested by the FBI outside of a restaurant and charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. I fought the charges because I didn’t want to admit I did anything wrong but I eventually plead guilty. I received a 21 month sentence which started on November 4th, 1999.

I have taken some time to chronicle this journey into the joys of federal prison. Take these action steps and you too can change your career and your life forever.

1) Subscribe to the “Business As Usual” attitudes

In all industries, there are procedures and practices that would be termed as “cutting corners.” Perhaps at one company or with one client this corner cutting isn’t done or expected but at another company or with another client it is. Refusing to cut corners can be exceedingly difficult when you are trying to keep your job or retain your customers and referral sources. I know your mother told you that one white lie can lead to another less-white lie then another and another – before you know it you’re in way over your head.

Action: Don’t listen to your mother, go with the flow and cut corners.

2) Don’t just turn a blind eye – help out

As it turns out, most fraud does not occur without collaboration, collusion or knowledge from someone on the inside. That is to say that for the most part, the loan officer, appraiser, closer, account executive, real estate agent – at least one of these people knows of or is outright helping the person with the master plan. If you’re a licensed professional it is unlikely that you are being completely duped by someone at your own game. At the very least you have a gut feeling.

Action: Make a conscious decision to ignore your gut feeling and assume that your instinct is telling you to do the wrong thing first.

3) Trust everyone

In the above step, I allege that most fraud doesn’t happen in a vacuum. This step is an exception. This step involves con-men. Confidence men as they were originally called, are good. They construct a facade—a persona of sincerity and honesty that for most part will not be transparent. They will become your friend and they will use every resource available to get you to do what they want; assist them in perpetrating a scam. This is an exception to the above in that you will be beat at your own game.

Action: Trust everyone.

4) Justify your unethical actions

My involvement in the scam that ultimately led to my indictment for a fraud conspiracy included the justification of many things. Examples: I told my self that since I was not explicitly told, by the king-pin, that the documents I received were fakes, it was not my job to act on my suspicions and check them out. After all, I didn’t create any fake documents, they did.. I also told myself that even if I knew that the documents were fakes, it wasn’t going to hurt anyone or create more risk – after all, the straw buyer did have good credit. And finally, “It’s not like this is the S & L scandal or anything.”

Action: Lie to yourself until you feel okay about it.

5) Subscribe to the belief that if a money tree falls in the forest and no one is around, you can take all the money

This might seem like a no-brainer but you’d be surprised. Being a felon and all, I’ve rubbed elbows with some unsavory sorts, you know, at the bottom of society. I’d say that at least half of them actually committed “opportunistic” fraud or fraud justified by what they perceived as need. They’d known for some time of a weakness in the guidelines or a loop-hole. They never exploited it because by doing so, well, that would be just wrong, unethical and perhaps even criminal. For weeks, months or years the loop-hole just sat there; quietly. Then one day, BAM the sick aunt broke a hip, no health insurance and the money available from the hole made by the loop, was extracted. There was an opportunity and a need and no one would ever know.

Action: The money is yours as long as nobody is looking.

Some may feel that the above can be placed in categories ranging from big to small, severe to not so severe. Perhaps some of the actions above appear to be the cutting of corners or to be present only in the wildly popular “gray area.”

Know this; every corner you cut trims a little piece from your soul. Believe me, I know from experience that it is almost impossible to get that back. There is no gray area; there is a thin black line. You are either on one side of it or the other.

If you think otherwise, follow steps 1 through 5 and write to me – pencil and paper. Depending on which prison you go to, I might know a few guys who can get you an extra dessert.

© Jerome Mayne

Jerome Mayne is the author of the book, Life Saving Lessons – The Diary of a White Collar Criminal. He is also a keynote speaker and has worked with dozens of companies and associations around the country helping their people make the right decisions, when the right decisions aren’t easy. He is a member of the National Speakers Association. He’s also the co-author of Mortgage Fraud and Predatory Lending – what every agent should know (Kaplan Publishing). He can be reached at jmayne@fraudcon.com or visit www.fraudcon.com.

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