Like many homeowners facing a teetering economy, Suzanne Hall decided to refinance her Cockeysville home.
She wanted out of her adjustable-rate mortgage, so she locked in a conventional, 30-year fixed loan with PNC Bank. Her interest rate was to drop from 6.5 percent to 5 1/8 percent, translating into a $150 a month savings on her payments.
Maple Leaf Title took $379,258.17 from PNC Bank and was supposed to pay off Hall's old loan through MetLife. But the money never reached its destination, federal prosecutors said, and instead was pocketed by the Towson-based title company.
On Wednesday, the Maryland U.S. attorney's office unsealed an indictment charging Anthony V. Weis, the 45-year-old head of the now-closed Maple Leaf, with 16 counts of mail and wire fraud, alleging thefts totaling $3.4 million in connection with Hall's loan and more than a dozen others.
"Awesome," exclaimed Hall when reached by phone after the indictment was made public. Her case is listed under "Count 1" of the 11-page indictment filed by federal prosecutors working with the Maryland Mortgage Fraud Task Force.
Hall said a friend of 30 years who was a partner at Maple Leaf steered her to the company. Now, the friendship is severed and she struggled for six months to restore her shattered credit rating and work with a bank to save her house from foreclosure.
"The one thing I really learned in all this is that the title company holds the reins on all your money," Hall said. "I realized in all this that my money was exposed by one man controlling the company."
The Maryland Insurance Administration has revoked the licenses or penalized more than three dozen title and settlement companies since 2008, according to The Baltimore Sun's economic columnist, Jay Hancock. He wrote two weeks ago that complaints have jumped from 90 in 2005 to more than 600 last year.
In September, the owner of a Severna Park title company was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for bilking homeowners of $3.4 million. And in February, the owner of a Parkville title company was arrested in Palm Beach, Fla., after having been a fugitive for a year while facing federal charges that he defrauded lenders of half a million dollars. His case is pending.
"In many embezzlement cases, the perpetrators start by stealing a small amount of money and then escalate to stealing larger and larger amounts," said Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. "We recently have prosecuted several cases involving title company executives who steal from trust funds.
"It is a perplexing crime because perpetrators should realize that they are almost certain to be caught sooner or later," the state's top federal prosecutor said, noting that "mortgage fraud is one of our highest federal enforcement priorities."
Weis could not be reached for comment. Messages left at properties listed in his name in Phoenix, Baltimore County, and in Ocean City were not returned. His arraignment in U.S. District Court in Baltimore has not been scheduled, and his attorney could not be reached for comment. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
A statement from prosecutors alleges that from June through October 2009 he "failed to make payoffs to existing mortgage lenders and lien holders and wrongfully transferred approximately $3.4 million out of the Maple Leaf escrow account to use for his own personal benefit or the benefit of others."
The indictment lists 16 properties from which prosecutors say payments were missing. The houses are scattered from Havre de Grace in northeastern Maryland to Potomac in the Washington suburbs. The amounts allegedly stolen range from the $379,000 in Hall's case to $897 for a house in Pasadena.
Like other homeowners in this case, Hall said she didn't discover a problem until her old mortgage company started sending her delinquency notices and then moved to foreclose on the property. By then, her credit rating had already been damaged and she was stuck owing money to two different banks on the same house.
"My home was literally in foreclosure," Hall said. "That's what was so heart-wrenching about this."
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