The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 24, 2013

‘Scam’ aimed at new homeowners

JOHNSTOWN — At first glance, Jason Richardson thought it was just another bill.

Addressed to the Portage man’s new home, the letter looked official, seemingly direct from a local agency seeking $89 to provide copies of his property records. Considering Richardson just closed the deal on his house two months earlier, the notice wasn’t altogether surprising, given the lengthy paperwork process involved in buying the home, he said.

But then Richardson looked at the fine print.

A closer look showed the letter was a clever solicitation, promising property data to homeowners that they could also obtain from their county deed’s office for a few dollars – far below the $89 fee.

“They make you think you have to pay them to get this information. But it’s basically a scheme,” Richardson said.

Johnstown attorney Kurt R. Nilson, who specializes in real estate law, said several of his clients have contacted him worried they might owe “another fee” for their home purchase.

In each case, they had letters from a company called the Local Records Office, he said.

“The company is basically charging $83 to $89 for a deed copy – when the person should already have an original in their possession,” Nilson said.

Disclaimers written in caps at opposite ends of the letter note that the service is not associated with any government agency and that readers are under no obligation to pay the amount. Deed info, the disclaimer adds,  also can be obtained from the Recorder of Deed’s office in whichever county the property is located.

But the notice is also wrapped in an envelope warning of $2,000 fines and jail time for tampering with the document’s delivery. The letter itself says the company provides “a copy of the only document” identifying the addressee as the property owner of the land.

It then lists public information about the property including the purchase or transfer date, year the home was built and square footage.

Messages for Local Records Office officials were not returned for comment – and a woman who answered the phone number listed on the letter said a manager was not available to talk.

The Local Records Office lists an address matching a Harrisburg area UPS Store.

Web searches show the California-based Local Records Office and other companies have been sending similar letters across the nation, offering public records for $80 to $100.

In December, the letters caused such a stir in North Carolina that state Attorney General Roy Cooper obtained a court order barring the Local Records Office from sending deed letters in that state.

Richardson expects most people take the time to read “the fine print.”

“But if that goes out to 1,000 people and 100 of them pay it, (the company) makes $8,300,” he said. “And chances are a lot of people could be misled.”

Richardson called the Cambria Recorder of Deed’s Office to alert them about the information – and “they called it a legal scam.”

But just because something is legal doesn’t make it right, he added.

He’s posted info about the letter on numerous local websites and his own Facebook account to spread the word.

“I just want to get the info out,” Richardson said. “People should know.

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