TRENTON, NJ – A Union man was sentenced to state prison today for leading an elaborate identify theft and mortgage fraud scheme in which he and his co-defendants stole nearly $1 million from various lenders, according to Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino.

Artis Hunter, 50, the alleged ringleader, was sentenced to ten years in state prison by Superior Court Judge Benjamin S. Bucca Jr., in Middlesex County.  On May 8 Hunter pleaded guilty to a charge of first-degree money laundering.

Hunter’s co-defendants, Laquan Jones, 43, of Newark, and Melissa Phillip, 42, of West Orange, pleaded guilty previously and are awaiting sentencing.

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Jones, who is scheduled for sentencing on Sept. 15, pleaded guilty on July 21 to second-degree money laundering and faces a recommended sentence of five years in prison, with a special condition of drug court.  Phillip pleaded guilty on April 28 and faces a recommended sentence of 364 days in the county jail as a condition of a term of probation.  She is scheduled for sentencing on Nov. 13.

“These defendants used multiple stolen and fictitious identities to stage loan closings that were entirely illusory, with the exception of the very real money they stole from lenders, totaling nearly $1 million,” said Attorney General Porrino.  “Through our joint investigation, we closed the curtain on their costly scheme.”

A statement from the Attorney General’s Office outlined a scheme, dating back to at least 2010, in which the defendants and additional unidentified co-conspirators used stolen identities to steal more than $930,000 from lenders through at least eight fraudulent loan transactions, including four mortgage loans, three home equity lines of credit and one car loan. 

The defendants used stolen or fictitious identities not only for the borrowers, but for numerous other persons and businesses connected to the transactions. They created all of the hallmarks of a legitimate residential loan transaction by using stolen and fictitious identities to fill all of the required roles: seller, attorneys, settlement agent, title agent, homeowner’s insurance company, notary and other parties.  The loan applications contained many falsified documents, including closing documents, wire transfer documents and title insurance documents, all of which were purportedly witnessed, prepared or reviewed by parties and professionals who, in fact, either did not exist or had no knowledge of the transactions.

By creating the illusion of a legitimate transaction, the defendants deceived unsuspecting lenders into processing the fraudulent loan applications.  Once the loan was approved, the victim-lender disbursed the loan proceeds – in the case of the mortgage loans, amounts ranging from $196,000 to $230,000 – to a bank account opened in the fictitious or stolen name of a title company or law firm. At that point, the defendants or other co-conspirators withdrew the loan proceeds by visiting ATMs and bank branches in New Jersey to make numerous and frequent withdrawals. The withdrawals occurred over a period of time ranging from several weeks to several months until the entire amount stolen from the lender was withdrawn.  Frequently, participants withdrew several thousand dollars from various ATMs or bank offices in a single day. 

The owners of the homes connected to the loans were never really parties to the transactions, and with respect to the mortgage loans, none of the homes were actually sold.  The defendants established virtual offices for certain individuals and businesses purportedly involved in the loan transactions by setting up dozens of phone numbers, email addresses, fax numbers, websites and mail drop addresses.  They took these steps to maintain the appearance that lawyers, employers, borrowers, sellers, settlement agents, title insurance companies, homeowner’s insurance companies, notaries and other persons were actively involved in legitimate lending transactions.

“The defendants’ actions in this case were calculated and brazen. They exploited the mortgage lending process and stole people’s identities to line their pockets,” said Debra Parker, acting Special Agent in Charge of HSI Newark. “Fortunately, through our joint investigative efforts, we exposed this large-scale fraud scheme and now those involved will sit in a cell to account for their actions.”