MIAMI, Feb. 27, 2009 -- 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.
Foreclosure Scammers: 'Piranha Circling the Kill'
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.
Homeowner: 'I Trusted Him'
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.
But the man who admits he accepted Struthers' check, Chris Campbell of the company Lionstar LLP, insisted he is not a scammer. Rather, he said he believes he may have been scammed by a subcontractor to which he passed along the money, which in turn was supposed to deal with Wachovia.
He said he went into a deep depression after believing he'd lost his clients' money, and that's why he did not answer their calls.
But he claimed he is working to find a way to refund Struthers' and Howard's money.
"I think they deserve their money back and I will try to make it up to them," Campbell said. "I'm not a con artist. I'm just a former mortgage guy. I tried to find an alternative for them. It backfired on me."
Three Basic Scams
The FBI has identified three basic scams.
In "phantom help," supposed mortgage rescuers make off with cash meant to rework a mortgage.
The "bailout scam" entails homeowners surrendering a house title to a con artist on the promise that they can stay on as renters and, once the mortgage fees are "fixed," repurchase their home.
In the "bait and switch," scammers dupe homeowners into signing what they think is a new loan but, in truth, are forged documents ceding their house to the crooks.
"It's pandemic" said Steve Dibert, president of MFI-Miami, a firm that conducts forensic mortgage audits and fraud investigations.
Dibert estimated that up to 250,000 people have been scammed. The FBI did not confirm those numbers but noted that the numbers of scams and scam artists is booming.
According to the attorney general's offices in states like California and Florida, the fraudsters operate all over the country. At least one firm being sued by California, First Gov, is based in Mexico, according to court papers.
To avoid being scammed, the Consumer Warning Network advises consumers to avoid paying for services up front.
The FBI's Orsmby warns "an attorney or someone from the banking community who is willing to look over the material must be present, because the amount of money at stake, should this turn into a scam, is huge for the potential victim."
Though hopelessly in debt, Struthers believes she's hit a lucky streak. Wachovia, which owns her mortgage, issued a letter of default more than six months ago. Foreclosure loomed. But then, in a hearing, the bank said it had misplaced the original promissory note. And then the bank went strangely silent and the letters stopped.
"We're hoping to stay in this house a little bit longer," said Struthers, who, herself, is now applying for jobs in loan modification.