A Union man and a West Orange woman have been arrested and a third person is being sought for an elaborate identity theft and mortgage fraud scheme that netted them $1 million dollars, Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino announced today.
Artis Hunter, 49, of Union, the alleged ringleader, and Melissa Phillip, 41, of West Orange, were arrested Wednesday on charges of first-degree money laundering, first-degree conspiracy, second-degree identity theft and second-degree theft by deception, Porrino said.
The third man charged, Laquan Jones, 42, of Newark, is being sought on an arrest warrant, Porrino said.
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The three arrested and "additional unidentified co-conspirators" used stolen identities to steal more than $930,000 from lenders through at least eight fake loan transactions, including four mortgage loans, three home equity lines of credit and a car loan, Porrino said.
Hunter, Phillip and Jones allegedly used stolen or fake identities not only for the borrowers, but for others, too, to create all of the hallmarks of a legitimate transaction. They used stolen and fake identities for "all of the required roles," including seller, attorneys, settlement agent, title agent, homeowner's insurance company, notary and others, Porrino said.
He said investigators executed search warrants at Hunter's Union home and at another home in Hillside, where they seized computers, phones, additional electronic equipment, documents and other potential evidence.
The applications also included falsified documents — closing documents, wire transfers and title insurance documents — which were supposedly witnessed, prepared or reviewed by people and groups who didn't exist or who had no knowledge of them, Porrino said.
By creating the appearance of a real transaction, Hunter, Phillip and Jones allegedly tricked lenders into processing the applications. Porrino said that with the loans approved, the deceived lenders would deposit the loan proceeds – in amounts ranging from $196,000 to $230,000 for the mortgage loans – to an account opened in the fake or stolen name of a title company or law firm. The trio and other co-conspirators would then make numerous withdrawals — over several weeks or months — from ATMs and banks until the total was withdrawn. Porrino said they withdrew several thousand dollars from various ATMs or banks in a single day. The scheme dates back to at least 2010, he said.
The trio even went so far as to create virtual offices for individuals and businesses purportedly involved in the transactions by setting up phone numbers, email addresses, fax numbers, websites and mail drop addresses, Porrino said.
Porrino said the fraudulent mortgage loan applications related to homes in Franklin Township, Edison, Woodbridge and Franklin Park; the home equity lines of credit were connected to two properties in Elizabeth and one in Plainfield; and the car loan was for a 2012 BMW 3 Series.
"We allege that these defendants were prolific in their criminal scheme, stealing nearly one million dollars from lenders by using stolen or fictitious identities to stage loan closings that were almost entirely illusory," Porrino said. "With these arrests, we've put an end to their costly tricks."
"Mortgage loans are a tempting target for con artists because so much money is at stake and because lenders often conduct loan closings remotely, relying on electronic communications and paper," said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. "I commend the state and federal investigators who handled this complex case and untangled the web of deception allegedly woven by the defendants."
The charges will be presented to a grand jury for potential indictment. Bail has been set at $500,000 for Hunter and $250,000 for Phillip.