MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
As a way of tracking the housing crisis, our Planet Money team bought a toxic asset. It's filled with home loans from across the country, some from people who borrowed more than they could afford. But it turns out, this Planet Money asset contains something else: At least one mortgage that could be part of a $200 million mortgage fraud scheme.
NPR's Chana Joffe-Walt takes a look at one Sarasota house in that scheme, a house that was bought and sold six times in four years and more than tripled in value.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT: The first person to own the home was probably the last man who truly loved that house on Cove Terrace Road.
Dr. FRED BLOOM: Fred Bloom is my name.
JOFFE_WALT: Fred Bloom?
Dr. BLOOM: Fred Bloom. Isn't that a great name for an allergist?
JOFFE-WALT: Dr. Fred Bloom, the allergist, met me outside the Cove Terrace house. It's nice - four bedrooms, red-tile roof. It's painted that sort of Florida peachy color. It's got a pool and a boat dock.
Dr. BLOOM: It had a two-story family room. There's windows up above and you can sit there and watch lightning and you could watch the sky.
JOFFE-WALT: Dr. Bloom's kids grew up, he and his wife separated and he reluctantly put the house up for sale.
Dr. BLOOM: And it didn't sell and it didn't sell and it didn't sell. And I wasn't happy about that. I was not happy about lowering the price.
Ms. CANDY SWICK (Real Estate Agent): And then we had an offer from Craig Adams.
JOFFE-WALT: This is Candy Swick, Dr. Bloom's real estate agent. Now, getting an offer from Craig Adams was nothing to sneeze at. Adams was well known in Sarasota as a guy who could make any deal happen. Some even use the word genius.
Ms. SWICK: Craig's offer was very good. It was right on the mark. And it was like, this is good. Take it and run, it's been enough time.
Dr. BLOOM: And I resisted as long as I could, and then decided the phase is over. So, I caved in.
JOFFE-WALT: Dr. Bloom sold the house for $600,000 - much less than he wanted for it. And then two weeks later, he's at the grocery store and he runs into his former Cove Terrace neighbors. Hey, how you doing? How are the new people on the block?
Dr. BLOOM: And they told me that my house was sold again. And he mentioned the price was $725,000. And I was really upset. And I said that $125,000 more than I got for it. That was only a matter of couple of weeks.
JOFFE-WALT: So it was weeks?
Dr. BLOOM: It was just a matter of couple of weeks. I'm not happy.
JOFFE-WALT: That is an understatement. Dr. Bloom was furious at his real estate agent and held on to that resentment for 10 years, 10 years, until what really happened at Cove Terrace came out.
Mr. MATTHEW DOIG (Investigative Reporter, Sarasota Herald-Tribune): My name is Matthew Doig. I'm an investigative reporter at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
JOFFE-WALT: Doig and his colleagues have been piecing together what they say could be a $200 million mortgage scheme led by Craig Adams.
Mr. DOIG: Adams put together the deal and apparently took it to his associate, a guy named Steve Wexler, and just basically said here's the deal, sign on the dotted line. Don't worry about it. You're not even going to own this property that long. In two weeks, we're going to sell it to our buddy Keyworth for $725,000.
JOFFE-WALT: Doig explains here's how this would work: Adams had a group of friends and associates. And one would buy a house, sell it to another and another for higher and higher prices. The sales wouldn't get listed publicly and Adams would set the prices.
With each sale, someone would take out a loan that would pay off the previous loan. And since it was bigger than the last one, there'd be extra cash to split among the players.
Mr. DOIG: After Dr. Bloom is out of the picture, that house is completely controlled by Craig Adams. And every time it is sold, Adams is representing both the buyer and the seller.
JOFFE-WALT: In four years, the Cove Terrace house had six owners and went from $600,000 to more than two million. Dr. Bloom became more and more confused. The house didn't look any better. In fact, it looked worse.
Dr. BLOOM; Occasionally, I would drive by the house. And at various times, the yard was really in disrepair.
JOFFE-WALT: When it was in disrepair, did it look no one was living here?
Dr. BLOOM: Yes. It looked like it was vacant.
JOFFE-WALT: Guy Cecala is publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance and he said he's seen this sort of thing all over the country. As long as there's a housing bubble, it works pretty well.
Mr. GUY CECALA (Publisher, Inside Mortgage Finance): The idea is if you can keep selling a house for more than your borrowing, you'll always make out ahead. You know, what...
JOFFE-WALT: Eventually, it's a loan, eventually you have to pay the bank back.
Mr. CECALA: Correct. It wasn't a great exit strategy. You know, in hindsight, these weren't geniuses figuring out these plans.
JOFFE-WALT: By 2007, the Cove Terrace house was owned by yet another associate of Craig Adams, a guy who defaulted on more than $2 million in loans. The bank foreclosed on the house.
Now, the banks or lenders clearly lose big time in this scenario. They kept handing out the loans because they, too, were caught up in the bubble. With home values rising so quickly, who's to say that six owners in four years is really all that strange?
Mr. CECALA: It's a fine line between what's a legitimate real estate investment and committing actual fraud.
JOFFE-WALT: Cecala says, look, we have a reality TV show about flipping houses. At the height of the bubble, a third of the people buying properties were never planning to live in those homes. That doesn't mean all those loans were fraudulent. But mortgage fraud doesn't have to be all that dramatic. It can be just budging your income a little.
The FBI is looking into more than 3,000 cases of mortgage fraud right now. And in Sarasota, they're doing it with help of Craig Adams. The Herald-Tribune has reported that he's gone from real estate genius to FBI informant.
Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.