July 30, 2008— -- When Candy Young needed $10,000 to care for her sick grandmother, she turned to a mortgage broker to help refinance her home. He made it easy for her.
"He seemed to know the ins and outs and all of the language and jargon that you would normally hear," Young said. "He presented his business card and had his mortgage broker license."
Young didn't know that the man she entrusted with her finances had been convicted of grand theft. Though he appeared legitimate, she says his criminal streak was not over -- she says she was scammed.
Young told ABC News how easily she fell victim. She thought the broker was doing her a favor when he showed up late at night outside her office so she could sign the documents. In the darkness on the hood of his car, she signed a document that, she says, he told her was an application to refinance her home. But what she says she didn't know was, in fact, she was signing over the deed to her house -- making her mortgage broker the new owner.
Like many home owners, Young thought the broker was acting in her best interest. Although home ownership is the biggest investment most Americans will make in a lifetime, traditionally, mortgage brokers have not been licensed or monitored the way lawyers or accountants have been.
An investigation by the Miami Herald found that, during Florida's real estate boom, from 2002 to 2005, at least 10,000 people with criminal records were selling mortgages. With easy access to people's credit and identity, brokers committed at least $85 million in fraud, the investigation found.
"People were drawn to get a piece of this pot of gold that was the housing boom," said Matt Haggman, a reporter at the Miami Herald who covered the story. "And, of course, an easy way to make money has a way of attracting fraudsters."
The state stepped up its regulation of the industry in the last few years, but the Herald found that it consistently failed to enforce the regulations, making it easy for anyone to become a broker.
"Selling mortgages was a way to make money very quickly and to make a lot of it," Haggman said. "We found many people, [whose] sole qualifications were participating in previous frauds, or previous swindles."
In some cases, crooked brokers pushed homeowners to buy mortgages they clearly couldn't afford, helping fuel the country's mortgage crisis, according to the paper's investigation.
"There are cases where mortgage brokers are actually being compensated more for giving a more risky loan to that borrower," Haggman said. "We are in the midst of a foreclosure crisis that is, in part, related to the fact that there has been so much mortgage fraud."
Experts point to the mortgage crisis as a defining moment in our nation's history.
"We're going to view this as one of the greatest debacles in the history of this country," said Richard Bitner, author of "Confessions of a Sub-Prime Lender." "The reason for that is we had so much malfeasance in so many different levels that brokers were certainly a main part of it."
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has, so far, refused to heed calls to fire the man responsible for overseeing the state's mortgage broker licensing system, instead asking for a review of what went wrong.
Young hired a lawyer -- at a cost of $100,000 -- to get back the title to her own house.
"The mortgage companies made money, the appraisers made money, the mortgage brokers, loan originators -- everybody made money that was involved," she said, at her expense.
"I think they should have a standard for who can become mortgage brokers or loan originators, or who can come into the mortgage industry itself," Young added.
Her broker's alleged fraud completely destroyed any financial safety net that Young had built for her family.
"It has been extremely hard," Young said. "It is like starting over from ground zero."
For homeowners like Young, and other borrowers who were allegedly swindled, they say these mortgage brokers violated a sacred line of trust.