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A Maryland woman who stole millions of dollars from Washington-area homeowners trying to avoid foreclosure is a "vulture" whose case should serve as a warning to other con artists, a federal judge said yesterday before imposing a sentence of more than 12 years.

Joy Jackson, 41, a former exotic dancer who became president of the Metropolitan Money Store, carried out the years-long scheme through the Lanham-based business. She used the cash to buy jewelry, fur coats and vacations, and to cover a lavish wedding at the Mayflower Hotel.

Metropolitan promised to help people keep their homes and repair their credit. Instead, Jackson and several co-conspirators, including her husband, Kurt Fordham, took titles to properties and drained them of equity.

"This was a scheme that was practiced on the most vulnerable people you would imagine," U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus said.

The company directed owners to transfer title of their homes to third-party buyers for a year.

During that time, Metropolitan said, it would borrow against the value of the home and use that money to pay the mortgage and repair homeowners' credit ratings. It also promised to help owners obtain better interest rates.

Instead, Metropolitan siphoned off the equity and Jackson and others spent the cash. The company also stopped making mortgage payments on the houses.

Titus sentenced Jackson to 12 years and seven months in prison and ordered her to pay more than $16 million in restitution.

Prosecutors said Jackson and her co-conspirators left a trail of devastated homeowners in Maryland, Virginia and the District who thought they were digging out of financial problems, only to find they had been cheated.

Margaret Neal, one of the victims, told the judge that her husband worked three jobs to keep their Annapolis home. After going to Metropolitan for help, they lost their home to foreclosure. The family ended up sleeping in a car and using the services of a food pantry.

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