When Michelle Andrews got a letter urging her to pay $59 to get a copy of the deed to her property in Arlington, she knew instantly it was shady. The 51-year-old administrative assistant knew better than to pay because she works in the Shelby County Register of Deeds office.
“I just trashed it,” Andrews said of the letter. “But some people do pay, and it’s not just seniors.”
State officials are warning that companies are sending out letters and duping people into thinking they have to pay exorbitant fees to get copies of their property deeds. Some of the letters appear to be bills from the federal government.
“It’s happening all across the state,” said Randy Delap, the register of deeds for Lincoln County. “We’ve had several instances where people have just written a check thinking it was something they were supposed to do.”
The companies often charge more than 100 times the actual cost. Most people don’t need a copy of a property deed which can be obtained for less than $1, or even for free.
Identity theft concerns
The letters look official, sometimes carry a Washington, D.C., address, and ask for anywhere from $59 to $90. To make matters worse, people are often asked to send checks, causing some consumer advocates to worry that anyone who pays might become a victim of identity theft.
“If somebody does get a solicitation like this, we would encourage them to contact their local county register of deeds,” said Jay West, executive director of the County Officials Association of Tennessee. West has heard so many complaints about the letters that he contacted the state Division of Consumer Affairs to investigate.
But there may not be much authorities can do beyond educating the public, because people who pay do get copies of their deeds from the companies. And the letters have a disclaimer that says the company is not affiliated with any government agency.
“They’re misleading you into thinking you must do this,” said Kathleen Calligan, CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Middle Tennessee.
The BBB of Middle Tennessee issued a consumer advisory in January warning people not to pay the high copying fees. The advisory said one letter appears to be an $87 bill from the “U.S. Government Property Deed Administration.” There is no such federal agency.
Another letter, billing itself as a “Deed Processing Notice,” listed an address at 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., and said the “amount due” was $85. It also listed a “compliance response date” by when the fee was to be paid.
‘Not something you need’
An AARP Tennessee staff member called the number on the letter but could not reach anyone for a comment. The number went to a recorded message that said a copy of the deed “is not something you must have. It’s strictly your choice.”
Still, Calligan and others say what the companies are doing is wrong.
“The people most vulnerable to this kind of a marketing effort are older Americans who … [do not] realize that this is something they can do for themselves with very little expense,” said Fred Fields, 74, an AARP Tennessee advocacy volunteer from Norris.
Claudia Peeler, president of the Tennessee Registers Association, said the problem is nationwide.
The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office advises anyone who has received a letter to contact the state Division of Consumer Affairs or by calling 615-741-4737.
“Obviously, we’re interested in things like this,” said Jeff Hill, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office. The office settled a similar case several years ago by requiring a company to make it clear that it was not a government agency. “We would rather receive too many complaints rather than too little because we can’t do anything about something that we don’t know about.”
—By Sheila Burke