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FBI Probes 14 Companies Over Home Loans

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WASHINGTON — The FBI on Tuesday said it is investigating 14 companies for possible accounting fraud, insider trading or other violations in connection with home loans made to risky borrowers.

Agency officials did not identify the companies under investigation but said the wide-ranging probe, which began in spring 2007, involves companies across the financial services industry, from mortgage lenders to investment banks that bundle home loans into securities sold to investors.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is working in conjunction with the Securities and Exchange Commission on the corporate-fraud probe, said Neil Power, chief of the FBI's economic crimes unit in Washington.

As the nation's housing crisis worsens, there has been a dramatic spike in the number of mortgage fraud cases under investigation. An agency spokesman said 1,210 such cases are open, up from roughly 800 a year ago.

The announcement comes weeks after authorities in New York and Connecticut said they are investigating whether Wall Street banks hid crucial information about high-risk loans bundled into securities sold to investors.

Power said the FBI is looking into the practices of so-called subprime lenders, as well as potential accounting fraud committed by financial firms that hold these loans on their books or securitize them and sell them to other investors.

Referring to certain unnamed bankrupt subprime lenders, Power said there are "some irregularities there that we're looking into," including the timing of stock sales by executives. Dozens of subprime lenders have filed for bankruptcy in the past year, most prominently New Century Financial Corp.

"We're looking at the executives to see if they were committing insider trading," Power said.

Power also said law enforcement officials are looking at whether homebuilders manipulated financial statements to inflate revenues.

An SEC spokesman declined to comment. The agency has said about three dozen investigations related to the mortgage market meltdown are ongoing.Defaults on subprime loans have risen over the past 12 months and are primarily responsible for the credit crunch that has disrupted global financial markets.

Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Bear Stearns Cos. all disclosed in regulatory filings Tuesday that they are cooperating with requests for information from various, but unspecified, regulatory and government agencies. Officials at the companies either declined to comment, or could not immediately be reached.

FBI officials also highlighted what they called a growing pattern of suspected mortgage loan fraud potentially committed when loans were made to shaky borrowers. They cited a surge in "suspicious activity reports" that banks are required to file with the government.

The number of those reports is projected to rise to 60,000 this year after hitting 48,000 last year, up from about 7,000 in 2003. "We're going to have to take a hard look at these things," said Assistant FBI Director Ken Kaiser.

Earlier this month, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he and New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo were looking whether banks properly disclosed the high risk of default on so-called "exception" loans _ considered even risker than subprime loans _ when selling those securities to investors.

In November, Cuomo said he issued subpoenas to government-sponsored mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in his investigation into what he claims are conflicts of interest in the mortgage industry. He said he wanted to know about billions of dollars of home loans they bought from banks, including the largest U.S. savings and loan, Washington Mutual Inc., and how appraisals were handled.

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Associated Press Writers Lara Jakes Jordan in Washington and Joe Bel Bruno in New York contributed to this report.