Bamboozled: October 29, 2015

??????????????????When consumers get a mailing that has the words “U.S. Government” or “Official” on the envelope, they take notice.

But rather than an official notice from a municipality, you might be looking at a pitch from a company that’s trying to fool you into thinking you need the services they provide.

One common mailing that’s disguised as an “official” document is a solicitation to order a copy of the deed for your home.

Some homeowners like to have copies on hand in the case of an emergency or for estate planning concerns.

But you don’t have to use a costly service to get your copy.

Earlier this year, Monmouth County Clerk Christine Giordano Hanlon warned consumers about such letters.

She said these solicitations from private companies offer to sell homeowners expensive certified copies of their property deeds. Depending on the company, the prices charged range from $79.50 to $89.

“Instead, and for a very minimal fee, residential and commercial property owners can request and receive a copy of their deed, and other property documents, directly from the Monmouth County Clerk’s Office,” said Hanlon.

Same is true for property owners in any county in New Jersey.

deedHanlon said this scam isn’t new.

From 2007 to 2013, her county learned there were approximately 500 to 700 people per year who fell for it. It died down a bit in 2013, Hanlon said, and in 2014, her office only knew of 10 customers who paid the overpriced fee.

But in 2015, there’s been an uptick.

“This year, we received over 100 phone calls from homeowners advising us that they had received letters and inquiring about whether the letters were legitimate,” Hanlon said.

The offer is simple. The company will provide a certified copy of your deed for a fee.

But the letters never note that you can get your own deed copy for pennies compared to what the companies charge, and the firms, with very “official” sounding names, sometimes imply they’re associated with your local county offices.

They’re not.

“A homeowner can obtain a plain copy for .05 cents per page at the Monmouth County Clerk’s Office or at no charge electronically from the County Clerk’s land records website,” Hanlon said. “If a homeowner would like the Clerk’s Office to provide a certified copy, it is $10 for the certification, and $1.50 per page.”

That means we’re talking about an obscene price mark-up if you go with these companies.

So how can these companies stay in business?

“They do not use official government information, but rather, make the correspondence look like it is from a government entity,” Hanlon said.

While New Jersey hasn’t taken action against these companies, other states have — and they’ve been successful in their attempts to protect consumers.

This past March, Iowa’s attorney general won a case against a company called Record Transfer Services, and the company was ordered to stop soliciting Iowa residents for payment for property deed records or any other government records.

The lawsuit alleged the company “sent official-looking ‘Recorded Deed Notices’ to Iowans, claiming they needed a copy of their deed as ‘legal evidence of ownership.’ Homeowners who responded were charged an $83 ‘document fee’ or ‘processing fee’ for the service.”

But instead, homeowners in Iowa can get deeds for little or no charge at all.

That’s just the most recent case.
In March 2013, Vermont’s attorney general reached a settlement with a California man who used the company name Record Retrieval Department to offer documents to Vermont homeowners. The state said the man falsely claimed the company was located in Vermont.

In June 2014, Indiana’s attorney general went after a company called National Deed Service, alleging it was using government-like mailings to offer copies of property deeds for “exorbitant fees.”

The state lost a case against another company that did business under the names Local Records Office and Home Owner Title Offices. The state said the companies were sending government-like mailings to residents, offering deeds and “property profiles” for as much as $89 a pop.

But the company’s attorney said the state “misunderstood” what the companies were selling. He said the firms sold a property profile that includes public records such as school information and crime statistics.

“It’s public information but it would be almost impossible for the average individual for the average individual to compile,” the attorney said.

To that, Bamboozled says baloney.

At least in New Jersey, you can access lots of public records for nothing.

You can check public school information here, and crime data from the New Jersey State Police here and from the Federal Bureau of Investigation here.

Also check out this column about how to do a public records search on your own.

On the New Jersey deed offerings, clerk Hanlon said she wanted to make sure property owners know how easy and inexpensive it is to get deed copies on their own.

“It is unfortunate that companies would prey upon citizens who are sometimes already struggling financially, especially our senior citizens in Monmouth County who are living on fixed incomes,” Hanlon said.

To get a certified or regular copy of your deed, contact your county clerk office. You can find the right office for your area by clicking on this state link.

NJ Advance Media’s Stephen Stirling contributed to this report.

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.

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