DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Thousands of Queens residents whose homes are in foreclosure face many decisions, but none may be as intimidating as whether to seek legal remedy.
With good reason, said the head of economic crimes investigations for the Queens district attorney’s office, which has had a surge in prosecutions of real estate fraud.
Lying on a mortgage application is a crime, noted Greg Pavlides, the bureau chief. And even a homeowner who has lost everything to a con artist mortgage broker may be culpable for signing the agreement.
“Many people get into dire straits, and they’d like to believe there is a way out,” Pavlides said. “You’re more likely to buy the snake oil from the snake oil salesman if you think it’s going to save you.”
But his office also has seen an unprecedented number of truly wronged homeowners.
In 2007, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown prosecuted 16 individuals in fraudulent home-financing schemes. In 2005, only one man was prosecuted. That reflects the skyrocketing number of scam complaints from homebuyers – 318 last year, up from 66 in 2005.
While predatory lenders have been known to focus on minority neighborhoods, the most common targets are the elderly, Pavlides said.
“They are the most vulnerable,” he said. “They’re equity rich and cash poor.”
Nobody knows that more than Mary Thompson, 66, whose father, Artee McKoy, 93, a retired barber, was bilked of $800,000 worth of property by a close friend’s daughter.
Alexandra Gilmore, 36, ingratiated herself to McKoy, who lives alone in Jamaica and suffers from dementia. Gilmore then swiped the deed to his home and flipped his investment property in Bayside twice, using refinancing schemes she set up without his permission, prosecutors said.
“He’s a very good, warm-hearted person. He’d give you the shirt off his back,” said Thompson, who lives in New Jersey. She is now seeking justice and restitution in court for her father.
However, prosecutors can take care of only half of that task, Pavlides noted.
“We can put the bad guys in handcuffs, but we can’t get you your house back,” he said of the distinction between criminal and civil cases.
Fraud crimes carry three- to nine-year sentences. But a defendant who can pay back a victim’s losses can walk away with time served or a lighter sentence.
Thompson said she was “very happy” about Gilmore’s February arrest. But it didn’t quite deliver peace of mind, she said.
“They were doing their duty and their job, but that doesn’t help pay off these big loans,” she said of the prosecutors. “My father could be put out of the house at any time.”