Make scam artists pay a steep price

State and federal prosecutors need to pursue white-collar crime with the same vigor used to pursue criminality in its more commonplace forms. Whether a crook burglarizes a home and makes away with valuables or uses documentary sleight of hand to take control of the house itself, the act is a crime that inflicts suffering on victims.

In a two-day investigative series beginning today, Day Staff Writer Izaskun E. Larraņeta details a scam in which Timothy W. Burke, aka Bill Burke, takes advantage of property owners facing serious fiscal problems. Scanning records for information on pending foreclosures, Mr. Burke swoops in with a proposal for these owners. He offers to take the properties off their hands and assume debt responsibility.

Except, that he doesn't, leaving the ownership unchanged and the debt problems and the pending foreclosure unaddressed. In the meantime, however, he does rent out some of the properties, pocketing the rent rather than applying it toward the mortgage, unpaid taxes or utility bills.

Timothy W. Burke, 63, has done this sort of thing before, sentenced in U.S. District Court in New Jersey in September 2003 to five years in prison, gaining his release and beginning his probation in August 2007. According to court records, Mr. Burke and his co-defendants in New Jersey told various property owners who were in default of their mortgages that he would take possession of the property and they could walk away from their debts. Instead, Mr. Burke and his co-conspirators rented out the properties, a scheme quite similar to the one Ms. Larraņeta has uncovered in her reporting.

The unwitting victims of such crimes should know better. They should recognize the impracticable nature of the offer. They should utilize their own expert attorney to scour the paperwork on which the scam is built, before signing anything.

But people in desperate situations do not always act rationally or prudently, which is what makes them vulnerable to scam artists. The state Office of Attorney General reports receiving 75 complaints about mortgage rescue or assistance swindles over the past two years. The attorney general has received five complaints specifically concerning Saunders Associates, the firm tied to Mr. Burke. The Better Business Bureau reports 11 complaints against Saunders Associates.

When complaints are scattered across numerous communities, there can be a reluctance to pursue these complicated cases. Local police departments are not well equipped to investigate this type of crime. Law enforcement can too easily dismiss it as a civil matter and ignore what it truly is - a crime.

In Connecticut, the Office of Attorney General has no prosecutorial authority, but can share information with the state and federal investigators and prosecutors who do have such power. Someone needs to pull all these swindles together and prepare a case. If such a criminal investigation has not been undertaken, it needs to start.

It is distressing that con artists often make their scores by taking advantage of people who are already dealing with hard times. But it has always been thus. The only recourse society has is to make those who would act in this way pay a harsh penalty. Meanwhile, people have to realize that when someone comes along promising to take their problems away, what they are more likely preparing to do is compound them.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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Housing Scam

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