It was $3,500 Nickie Struthers couldn't afford -- but desperate to stave off foreclosure, the 45-year-old and her fiance, Dr. Dan Howard, a surgeon, scribbled their signatures on the check they thought would yield salvation.
She handed the check to someone she'd done business with in the past, a mortgage broker-turned-foreclosure rescuer. But months went by, and the broker seemed to disappear. He had promised to modify her loan, she said, "but he wouldn't take our phone calls, e-mails, nothing. I never thought this would happen."
Struthers, of Bradenton, Fla., a Tampa exurb that, like many Sun Belt communities has seen home prices soar, then sink, may be among an estimated tens of thousands of Americans apparently duped into either signing checks or signing over their homes to potential foreclosure fraudsters -- though in Struthers' and Howard's case, the man they dealt with insisted to ABC News that he is not a scammer.
ABC News has obtained documents from the state of Florida attorney general's office indicating an exponential rise in complaints, from nine in November 2008 to 227 this month alone. New data from the California attorney general's office show a 26-fold increase in complaints from this time last year.
"Anytime the federal government puts federal relief funds available, we find there's a percentage of that money that will succumb to fraud activity," said Sharon Ormsby, the FBI's chief financial investigator, in a telephone interview.
The FBI has set up 35 task forces in its regional offices around the country to battle mortgage fraud.
But the number of Americans defrauded is soon likely to be too overwhelming for any agency to process, said Angie Moreschi of the Consumer Warning Network, a consumer watchdog group.
"You've got that $75 billion out there in housing aid, and that's going to bring the scam artists out of the woodwork," she said. "They are going to be like piranha circling the kill."
And the pool of potential prey -- families facing foreclosure -- could swell to 3 million, and those underwater could be double that, according to RealtyTrac.
In some cases, said Moreschi, the shady mortgage brokers who hawked those unaffordable mortgages are the same people offering to help them modify their loans and stay afloat.
Struthers said she felt she was in good hands: Her broker helped her with a loan a few years ago. And Struthers, a former mortgage broker herself, felt comfortable with him.
"He wasn't some guy off the yellow pages," she said. "I trusted him."
She admitted that the Bradenton McMansion she and her fiance purchased at the peak of the market in the summer of 2005 was overpriced, and that they were underfunded.
Shuffling through her papers, Struthers said her neighbor's home recently sold for half the purchase price of their home, $817,000. Her home is now worth $465,000, she estimated, and she and Howard owe more than $800,000 on it.
She was desperate and now believes she's been had, partly because the bank that holds her mortgage, Wachovia, told her it never heard of the man to whom she gave her money -- despite what she described as bank letters he gave her indicating he was working with the bank to modify her mortgage.
She reported her experience to a private group that documents complaints about potential foreclosure swindles, which alerted ABC News of her case.