The Accidental Mortgage Detective

It was the battered red Ford Taurus with the missing hubcap that made Ann D. Fulmer suspicious. The car was parked outside a house that, along with others in her leafy Stone Mountain, Ga., neighborhood, had sold for remarkable prices back at a time -- the late '90s -- before the real estate boom really took off.

Fulmer, a stay-at-home mom with a law degree, decided to investigate. She combed through deeds at the county courthouse. What she found was a spiderweb of mortgage fraud: Houses were being bought and sold by the same people -- sometimes nearly doubling in price in the process. Fulmer passed on the intelligence to law enforcement. By 2002 the mortgage-fraud gang was out of business and its ringleader behind bars.

Today, amid an explosion of real estate fraud, Fulmer's gumshoe skills are in hotter demand than ever. In March the 48-year-old onetime homemaker was a keynote speaker at the Mortgage Bankers Assn.'s National Fraud Summit. In April she briefed FBI agents on the painful personal costs of mortgage fraud. And this month, InterThinx, a St. Louis maker of fraud-detection software, hired Fulmer as a vice-president. Her doggedness and attention to detail, say investigators, are shining a bright light on an oft-ignored crime. "She's a driving force," says John Coliano, supervisory special agent in the FBI's Baltimore office, who oversaw its mortgage-fraud investigations until July.

Fulmer comes well-equipped for the task. A graduate of the University of Akron School of Law, she defended insurance companies against arson and fraud in the late 1980s. After several years at home with her children, Fulmer began her one-woman mortgage-fraud odyssey in 1997, then joined forces in 2000 with Alicia Sheppard, another homemaker who uncovered fraud in her Gwinnett County (Ga.) neighborhood. The duo set up the Georgia Real Estate Fraud Prevention & Awareness Coalition. Their goal: to show that mortgage fraud is not just a blemish on banks' bottom lines -- but a swindle on local communities.

Taking down scammers has become a personal campaign for Fulmer. Her pulse seems to quicken as she drives through fraud-plagued neighborhoods. In the Mountain Oaks and Waters Edge subdivisions, east of Atlanta, she waves property-tax records showing how, over the past five years, a 15-person fraud ring drove up the price of 100 bungalows and colonials before absconding with the loan proceeds. Some of the houses still sit vacant. On Aug. 24 the gang's mortgage lawyer, Chalana C. McFarland, was sentenced to 30 years in prison, which could be appealed.

Hunting fraudsters can be a spooky business. Fulmer says they have tailed her, a claim the FBI confirms. When that happens, she says, "I put on my best soccer-mom smile and drive 25 miles per hour." She clearly has no intention of backing off. This month, Fulmer handed over new data to the Georgia Attorney General's office: property records showing that one local outfit had bought 88 houses in DeKalb County since 2001. More than half are now in foreclosure -- a telltale sign of a potential fraud ring. "For every group you put away, two or three more pop up," says Fulmer. "It's like a Hydra."

By Brian Grow in Atlanta

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