A program that helps prosecute offenders who swindle foreclosure victims out of thousands of dollars will be expanded after Santa Barbara County officials voted this week to approve a fee increase.

The District Attorney’s Office’s 6-year-old Real Estate Fraud Prosecution Program will hire an additional investigator, a new deputy district attorney and a legal office professional with help from a recording-fee increase from $3 to $10.

The county Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to authorize the Clerk-Recorder-Assessor Office to increase the program’s recording fee.

The local fee increase follows a state Legislature decision, which last year established that a county board could up the fee to a maximum of $10 per recorded incident.

Chief Deputy Kelly Scott told supervisors that the program’s bare-bones staff could only tackle so many cases, typically spending more than the office receives in funding.

She explained that county residents who are nearing foreclosure often fall prey to scammers who capitalize on their vulnerability by making false claims to provide real estate services and then cheating them out of thousands. Once homeowners turn over money upfront, the con artists disappear, according to Scott. 

“We’re still in a down-turned economy,” Scott said. “Real estate fraud is prevalent. Potential victims are often elderly and many times English is not their first language. This is not unique to Santa Barbara County. Already, nine counties have increased their fees.”

Program staff members are responsible for prevention, investigation, prosecution and community education and outreach — an area the office would like to grow.

Scott said the program has received 100 referrals, conducted 92 investigations, filed 28 cases and made six convictions. More recent convictions include Walden Williams and Jessica Orca.

With the fee increase, the program will have more than $650,000 to work with instead of the $171,000 received last fiscal year.

Several members of the public spoke against expanding the program, citing evidence from a group-conducted, 100-page report that alleged misappropriation of funds.

Supervisors, along with District Attorney Joyce Dudley, pledged to look at the report, although the DA’s Office said no such report had been delivered as of Wednesday afternoon.

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal said he wanted to reconcile the public with the real issue at hand.

“I think predatory lending has been and is a significant issue,” Carbajal said.

Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr asked that the program come back before the board in a year to evaluate its effectiveness and finances, which Scott said already happens on an annual basis.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at gpotthoff@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.