Incidents of mortgage fraud increased about 30% nationwide last year, and this year's growth could be even higher, given the current turmoil in the subprime market, a study conducted for the Mortgage Bankers Association found.
Florida replaced Georgia as the state with the highest mortgage fraud rate, according to the study published last month by Mortgage Asset Research Institute Inc.
The Reston, Va., unit of ChoicePoint Inc. conducted the study in April by compiling reports from lenders.
D. James Croft, one of the authors of the report, cited a crackdown effort in Georgia.
However, a similar report that the ChoicePoint unit published a year ago also showed that Florida's fraud rate was higher than Georgia's in 2005; subsequently collected data put Georgia at the top of the list for the fourth year in a row.
Florida's score on the MARI Fraud Index for 2006 was 208, meaning the state's share of the nation's fraud cases was more than twice its share of the nation's originations.
California had the second-highest score (188), followed by Michigan (138).
The study differed from one by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network that estimated 28,000 fraud reports were filed nationwide last year. Mortgage Asset Research would not say how many cases it found nationwide, but it said its study was based on fraud allegations that have already been investigated, whereas the Fincen report takes into account all lender reports of suspicious activity.
Georgia's score on the MARI Fraud Index decreased by about 60%, to 125.
"The good news is that the numbers for Florida and Georgia" collected so far for last year "are not as high as we have seen in the past," Mr. Croft said.
But "we have gotten even more reports since the information was first published," he said. "The numbers are constantly changing."
Mr. Croft attributed Georgia's relatively low fraud growth to the state's "get tough" stance. In 2005 it passed the first law in the country to deal specifically with mortgage fraud; for first-time offenders in cases involving multiple homes, the law carries a penalty as high as 20 years in prison for first-time offenders.
According to the report, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado are among states considering legislation based on Georgia's Residential Mortgage Fraud Act.
Tighter underwriting guidelines imposed after the subprime fallout would make it difficult for many borrowers to secure loans, Mr. Croft said.
In fact, he said, they will increase some applicants' temptation to falsify incomes.
"When these conditions are coupled with a regulatory environment (in most states) where fraud perpetrators face relatively light penalties, the conditions are temptingly ripe for escalating mortgage fraud activity," the report said.
"Professional fraudsters will devise new and improved schemes to exploit the weaknesses in loan origination processes."
Rachel Dollar, a lawyer and mortgage fraud expert in Santa Rosa, Calif., agreed that frauds such as falsification of a borrower's income to meet underwriting standards would increase as lenders continued to tighten underwriting guidelines.
"Right now, those [low credit] people out there that are trying to fund loans are in a real tough position with all the tightening of underwriting requirements," she said.
"To get those loans through, those people are going to get creative."