A yearlong national initiative to track down and prosecute scam artists taking advantage of distressed homeowners has netted 17 people accused of crimes in the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney's Office Eastern District of California, which includes Kern County, the office announced Tuesday.

"These predators promise to help distressed homeowners, but leave them in worse financial shape, often forcing foreclosures," U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said in a written statement. "The schemes have worsened an already troubled housing market, and it is impossible to calculate the damage done to families who have lost their savings and their homes."

The initiative, led by the national Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force's Mortgage Fraud Working Group, searched for people defrauding homeowners. For example, many cases involved foreclosure rescue schemes that promised to help homeowners who had fallen behind on their mortgage payments.

From Oct. 1, 2011 to Sept. 30 of this year, 530 criminal defendants were charged in 285 cases nationally. In the Eastern District, six cases accused 17 defendants of fraud. Of those 17, three people have already pleaded guilty, while the rest are awaiting hearings. None of the 17 people in the Eastern District were from Kern County.

Nationally, the victims are estimated to have lost more than $1 billion. In the Eastern District, the loss is estimated at more than $9 million.

Cases involving distressed homeowners are often more difficult to investigate than other types of mortgage fraud for a number of reasons, Wagner said. First, many people do not know they have been scammed. Second, victims are spread out, and it is hard to gather information from multiple jurisdictions. And third, scammers go under many aliases and change locations, making them hard to find.

The initiative will continue into the coming year and beyond, Wagner said.

"More investigations are underway, and we expect that many more prosecutions will arise from this initiative," he said. "This problem will be with us for a while, and there is a lot more to be done."