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LOS ANGELES—California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. today shut down Lifetime Financial, Nations Mortgage, Greenleaf Lending, Virtual Escrow, Olympic Escrow and Direct Credit Solutions, accusing the predatory lending companies of pushing homeowners into “illegal and unconscionable loans.”
“As the mortgage crisis worsens, a growing number of fly-by-night companies are employing utterly brazen tactics to push homeowners into illegal and unconscionable loans,” Attorney General Brown said. “The illegal sales practices of these companies, run by Eric Pony and his family, included psychological pressure, forgery, and outright lies,” Brown added.
The companies ran a complex predatory lending scheme using bait and switch tactics to victimize thousands of consumers in California, many of whom have lost their homes.
Yesterday, the Los Angeles Superior Court, at the request of the attorney general, froze all the companies’ real estate and bank accounts and enjoined them from engaging in further predatory practices. The freeze order also included expensive cars and millions of dollars in private real estate owned by Eric Pony. Brown also seeks an estimated $20 million in penalties and restitution.
In the coming weeks, Brown intends to bring additional legal actions, both civil and criminal, against other mortgage lenders and foreclosure consultants who are taking advantage of homeowners across California.
San Bernardino District Attorney Michael A. Ramos also announced that several individuals affiliated with Lifetime Financial were arrested this morning on charges including conspiracy, grand theft, forgery and elder abuse. “These predatory lenders have taken advantage of people who placed their trust, as well as their homes, in the hands of these unscrupulous business people,” San Bernardino District Attorney Ramos said.
Lifetime Financial, Nations Mortgage and Greenleaf Lending operate predatory lending schemes to cheat homeowners by promising unrealistically low mortgage payments and then switching them to loans that do not match the original agreement. Telemarketers lure consumers by telling them that they are preapproved for a fixed rate loan of 5% to 6% which could lower monthly payments by hundreds of dollars.
Although the exact number of victims is unknown at this time, Eric Pony, the President of Lifetime Financial, claims to have arranged thousands of loans. During the investigation that led to today’s lawsuit, the California Attorney General’s Office took declarations from more than twenty individuals who had been scammed by these companies.
Lifetime Financial arranged loans with hidden fees of up to $20,000. In addition to these fees, consumers end up with loans that have worse financial terms than their original mortgage.
In some cases, consumers were saddled with monthly payments that exceeded their entire monthly income. Many consumers have either lost their homes to foreclosure or are facing foreclosure as a result of engaging in these transactions.
Telemarketers initially request only a nominal payment for a home appraisal. Appraisers then inflate home values to qualify the homeowners for much higher loans than are appropriate. The companies never provide copies of theses appraisal reports to consumers.
Next, a salesperson shows up at the victim’s house, sometimes as late as 11:45 at night, with documents that are incomplete or contain terms that are vastly different from those originally promised. If consumers complain about the terms, the salespeople tell them that there is a mistake but they should just sign the paperwork to “keep this great deal.”
If a consumer refuses to sign the documents, company employees forge the customer’s signature. In some instances, the forgeries are so blatant that the victims’ names are misspelled.
As a result of these tactics, the final mortgage documents always contain extremely unfavorable terms that are substantially worse than originally promised by the telemarketers. Other fraudulent and unlawful practices include the following:
• Offering thousands of dollars in cash back without disclosing that the money would be used to cover high fees
• Falsely promising to reimburse prepayment penalties from the victim’s current lender
• Pressuring victims to sign inaccurate loan documents by promising to correct excessive fees
• Failing to provide copies of signed documents
• Forging victims names and signatures on loan documents
• Falsifying income information on loan applications and creating fake references
• Refusing to honor written demands to cancel loans
If a consumer tries to back out of the transaction, the companies promise to waive thousands of dollars in various processing, application, origination and underwriting fees. If the consumers agree, sales representatives provide a new statement but then resubmit the original forms, ultimately charging the same excessive fees.
THE SCAM ARTISTS
Lifetime Financial, Nations Mortgage, and Greenleaf Lending, all located in Los Angeles, operated complex real estate schemes involving, by Eric Pony’s own admission, thousands of transactions. Documents obtained during a recent search warrant confirmed that Lifetime Financial recently received more than $1.7 million from Olympic Escrow.
Some of the key players involved in companies’ conspiracy to rip off homeowners include the following individuals:
• Eric Pony, 25, a real estate sales person until he surrendered his license in September 2007 following an investigation by the California Department of Real Estate. Eric Pony is also known to use the alias “Oren” to conceal his unlawful practices.
• Paulette Pony, 23, Eric’s sister and a notary public for Lifetime Financial until her license was revoked in December 2007 by the California Secretary of State for felony conspiracy charges and failing to disclose a 2003 forgery conviction.
• Wilma Pony, 58, Eric’s mother, who also worked as a notary for Lifetime and is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Nations Mortgage, Inc. and Direct Credit Solutions, Inc., organizations which are also being sued today by the attorney general.
Lifetime Financial, and its web of affiliate organizations, has also operated out of Encino, Canoga Park, Glendale and North Hollywood.
The Pony family employed a team of telemarketers, notaries, brokers and escrow officers to peddle their fraudulent loan applications. These suspects, who solicited consumers in Spanish, English and Tagalog, knowingly broke the law in an effort to push consumers into loans they could not afford. The companies charged consumers with excessive hidden fees, as high as $20,000. Other suspects sued today include the following persons:
• Eli Hassine, 25, who was appointed a notary public in January 2005.
• John D H N Nielsen, a.k.a. Doo Hyun No, a licensed real estate broker for Nations Mortgage and Green Leaf Lending, Inc.
• Carol Pencille, 57, an escrow officer and the President and Chief Executive Officer of Olympic Escrow, a company involved in a kickback scheme with Lifetime whereby $2,700 in fees was taken from escrow proceeds through falsified amendments to loan documents.
• Sibpun Ampornpet, 31, an escrow officer, notary public, and principal of Olympic Escrow. A document shredder in Ampornpet’s office contained shredded signatures of consumers and other fraudulent paperwork.
• Dean Storm, a licensed real estate broker until a Department of Real Estate investigation led to the revocation of this license in September 2007.
At various times, Pencille and Ampornpet also worked for Virtual Escrow, Inc. and Olympic Escrow, companies that operated in Glendale, Encino and North Hollywood. The attorney general suspects that there are other people involved in these companies’ conspiracy to cheat homeowners and will amend the state’s lawsuit when these persons are identified.
The following are two examples of the individuals who were manipulated by the company’s irresistible offers:
In 1996, Ron and Barbara Fitzgerald moved into their home in Lancaster, California. Ron is retired and his wife Barbara has been bedridden for several years due to a serious medical condition. In October 2006, Lifetime Financial offered the Fitzgeralds a 4.5% fixed rate with $800 monthly payments. The telemarketers offered to meet Ron at a nearby café to review paperwork.
During the meeting, Ron discovered that the paperwork did not conform to the terms that were discussed with the telemarketers. The sales agent told Ron that the paperwork was a “mere formality” and “everything would be taken care of.” Ron decided not to sign all the paperwork.
Later that month, the Fitzgeralds were stunned to find that their loan had been processed even though Barbara Fitzgerald did not, and could not have, signed any loan documents due to her medical condition. Investigators later determined that all the signatures and initials on the loan documents were forged.
The Fitzgerald’s mortgage went from $189,000 at an adjustable rate of 8.04% with monthly payments of $1,100, to now owing $244,000 at an adjustable rate of 8.5% with payments of $1,788.
Luis Garcia, a 75 year old disabled senior from Peru, has limited understanding of English. Lifetime Financial contacted Garcia in Spanish and promised to refinance his mortgage into a low, fixed rate. Garcia agreed to a 50 year loan with $1,000 monthly payments and was shocked when he received a letter from New Century Mortgage stating that his new loan rate was 7.95% and his initial monthly payment would be $2,254. All the paperwork provided to Garcia was written in English.
With help from translators and family, Garcia discovered that Lifetime Financial had falsified almost all of Garcia’s information including his monthly income and work history. Garcia was unable to afford the extremely high monthly payments and ultimately lost his home.
The attorney general is seeking civil penalties of $2,500 for each violation of law and full restitution as well as a permanent injunction against operation these businesses. Penalties and restitution are estimated to exceed $20 million. The following assets are subject of the seizure order:
• Bank accounts at Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citibank, East West Bank, First Federal Bank and Washington Mutual
• 16 separate private and commercial properties, valued at more than $6 million, in Tarzana, Canoga Park, Studio City, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Sherman Oaks, North Hollywood and Los Angeles
• All personal property, especially luxury cars, including: 4 Mercedes Benzs, 2 Ferraris, 1 Land Rover, 1 BMW, 1 Audi and 1 Bentley
Other agencies which assisted with the investigation that led to today’s lawsuit include: Los Angeles Department of Consumer of Affairs, California Department of Real Estate, the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the San Bernardino District Attorney.
California’s lawsuit, filed yesterday afternoon under seal in Los Angeles Superior Court, is attached.