When writing a weekly scam column is part of your job, you’re always on the lookout for a new topic.
Alas, sometimes those new topics have a way of finding you.
As a new Albuquerque homeowner, I’ve received two official-looking letters in the mail during the past month or so, strongly suggesting I spend either $59.50 or $83 to acquire a certified copy of my deed from Bernalillo County.
And while both contained disclaimers stating the companies are not affiliated with the county or any other government agency, the letters certainly are designed to suggest otherwise.
- The letter from Record Transfer Services of Wilmington, Del., arrived with “DEED PROCESSING NOTICE” – in big, bold letters – printed in the envelope’s mailing address window, along with a box containing a property number, the name of the county and response date.
Once you open the letter, the “compliance response date” is reprinted in a box in large, bold type to the left of the section that explains “Why you need a copy of your current Grant Deed and property profile?”
You are then encouraged to detach and mail the section of the letter that contains your home address along with your “processing fee of $83.00.”
- The letter from National Record Service Inc. of Northbrook, Ill., is a bit more subtle, but it came with “Re: Bernalillo County Recorder” and a document number printed in the mailing address window.
This firm uses a recommendation from the federal government to entice you to take advantage of its services.
“The U.S. Government website recommends that property owners should have an official or certified copy of their deed,” the one-page letter reads. “If you don’t already have this important document, you may obtain one now.”
You then are advised to fill out a form at the bottom of the letter and either enclose a check or money order for $59.50, or designate the credit card of your choice and jot down the accompanying number and expiration date.
So what’s the problem?
Simply this: You can get the same document from your county clerk’s office for less than $5.
“At the minimum, it’s a misleading business practice. At most, it’s a scam or fraud,” says Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver.
“What it does is capitalize on the average citizen’s unfortunate lack of knowledge of resources available to them as citizens and residents of the community.”
In Bernalillo County, the cost to obtain a copy of what many times is a single-page document is $1 per page. If you want it certified, it’s $1.50. That’s a far cry from $59.50 or $83.
Oliver says inquiries to her office about this practice tend to come in waves, usually about once a year. That has been the case since she came into office seven years ago, she says, and no doubt has been going on longer than that.
As mentioned earlier, both companies include disclaimers in their letters and neither appears to be violating any laws. Both list working telephone numbers, and National Record Service even lists its website (http://nationalrecordservice.com), which notes it has been “providing property owners with certified copies of their deeds since 1972.”
But charging homeowners, in some cases, up to 80 times more for a document they can obtain on their own for a buck or two is certainly misleading, if not an out-and-out fleecing of the unsuspecting public.
For its part, at least National Record Service points out in its disclaimer that many government records are available “free or at a nominal cost from government agencies.” (Record Transfer Services only goes so far to suggest that you can obtain a copy of your deed from your county recorder “for up to $83.00.”)
Still, we couldn’t help but get a chuckle out of the dire picture National Record Service paints on its website to describe what it can be like to deal with government agencies to justify its $59.50 fee.
“It is not an easy process to obtain public records from a governmental agency,” the website declares. “It often requires people to travel to the recorder’s office, lose time from work and pay, locate the proper office, deal with the people at the office, and locate their document and wait for the document to be produced. Sometimes, the process will take two trips, and in some cities the cost of parking alone could be $20 plus each day. This is not an easy process.”
Oliver begs to differ.
“Charging $50 to call the county clerk’s office seems exorbitant for the service provided,” she said. “You’re not even getting your oil changed.”
New ‘Scammed’ blog
After two months of writing “Scam of the Week,” it has become pretty apparent that a once-a-week column isn’t enough to identify and warn you against the countless scams circulating around the state and beyond.
So last week we launched a new online blog, “Scammed, Etc,” which is intended to supplement the weekly column that runs each Sunday in the Money section.
Look for it along with our other blogs at www.abqjournal.com/Blogs.
Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 505-823-3847 or on Twitter at @nickpapp if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.