Maricela Castellanos sat at her desk, the telephone pressed to her ear, a chill running through her body.
A representative from her mortgage company was on the line with troubling information about the loan on Castellanos' Hesperia home.
No one at the company had previously been in contact with her, Castellanos recalled the man saying. The bank had no record of a new loan agreement with her, he said, nor had it received cashier's checks for $2,260 and $1,408.23 she said she had sent.
Castellanos had been a victim of an alleged loan modification swindle -- a financial crime in which scammers pretend to help distressed borrowers renegotiate their mortgages with their banks but instead pocket the money and leave the homeowners in worse straits than before.
Law enforcement officials say the scams are becoming increasingly prevalent, especially in California, where the Department of Real Estate has reported an explosion from 10 open cases a year ago to more than 750 this spring. Nationally, U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder has said that the FBI's "rescue scam" caseload is up 400% from five years ago.
Some schemes advertise with hand-drawn signs on freeway ramps, while others target homeowners by name with carefully forged documents that appear to come from their lender.
The alleged scam artists to whom Castellanos paid more than $5,000 last fall were among the most sophisticated operating in California, authorities said, stymieing investigators with a thicket of bank accounts, 1-800 numbers and wire transfers to Mexico.
"Trying to piece it together . . . was an incredibly difficult thing to do," said Deputy Atty. Gen. Angela Rosenau.
Hours after Castellanos' conversation with her lender, an unfamiliar car paused in front of her house.
Sandy Birch, an investigator with the California Department of Justice, had arrived with a cashier's check Castellanos had sent to a post office box in the San Fernando Valley.
"I want to know why you were sending money there," Castellanos recalled Birch asking her.
Castellanos told the investigator that she and her husband had bought their three-bedroom home on Manzanita Street in 2005. Their $280,000 loan had a monthly payment of about $1,700 -- manageable on her salary as an office manager and her husband's work at a golf course. Then her husband got laid off.
In July 2008, the mortgage fell into default. In August, Castellanos received a letter that appeared to be from her lender, telling her she could enroll in a free program to save her home. It even included a warning to beware of foreclosure rescue scams.
"I really fell for it," she said, adding that she responded immediately.
Days later, a man phoned Castellanos to say she and her husband had been approved for a more affordable loan, with delinquency fees tacked onto the end.
This sounded reasonable, Castellanos recalled, so she didn't question it when told to send her payments via money order or cashier's check to the "Payment Processing Department" at a postal box in North Hills.
But her bank had nothing to do with the purported new loan or the mail drop.
The California attorney general's office had been fielding complaints for months from homeowners who had fallen victim to what one prosecutor termed a "brilliant scheme."
Representatives of this operation allegedly induced homeowners to send them as many as three consecutive mortgage payments. More than $1 million flowed through a series of bank accounts, much of it eventually crossing the border to banks in Mexico, according to the attorney general's office.
In some cases, people lost their homes because they did nothing to head off foreclosure, believing they had made a deal with their bank.
Despite there being hundreds of victims, investigators found the trail confusing. The operation did not register its phone lines in its own name. Instead, investigators said, its 800-numbers ran through Internet phone companies. It was the same with the bank accounts.
Birch, Rosenau and a forensic auditor began working backward from the accounts where checks were deposited and postal boxes where victims sent their money.
They determined that much of the money seemed to go to Juan Jose Perez and Isuara Hernandez, a married couple with three children who had recently lived in San Bernardino County.
On Oct. 27, the attorney general's office filed a 39-count complaint charging Hernandez, Perez and several associates with grand theft, money-laundering and conspiracy. Five of Hernandez and Perez's associates pleaded guilty; but Hernandez and Perez, who authorities say are the ringleaders, have eluded capture.
Investigators suspect they went to Mexico.
On Oct. 29, the trail led to Anna Santos, 22, of North Hills.
Santos, who has three children, told investigators she had no idea she was involved in anything illegal. She had answered a help-wanted ad to be the "U.S. financial representative" for a firm selling time-shares in Mexico, according to court papers and Santos' husband.