Chicago company charges for free service

Gilroy
– Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone was indignant Monday
about a Chicago company’s efforts to charge property owners for a
service provided by the county for free.
Gilroy – Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone was indignant Monday about a Chicago company’s efforts to charge property owners for a service provided by the county for free.

Over the last few weeks, county homeowners have received a letter from Property Tax Assessor Records Corp. offering to secure a property tax deduction for a $25 fee. Homeowners can receive a $7,000 reduction in the assessed value of houses they live in. The reassessment results in a property tax savings of either $56 or $70, depending on when a claim is filed.

The assessor’s office mails information about the reduction whenever a property changes hands, and homeowners are able to apply for the reduction at any time at no cost. The letter from Assessor Records Corp. lists the $7,000 reduction four times, but never mentions the actual tax savings. Also, unless a subscriber expressly asks it not to, the company will add a $24 charge for providing a market rate survey, bringing the total fee to $49.

“Apparently, it’s on the borderline of being legal, but they’re clearly trying to deceive and mislead the taxpayers,” Stone said. “It’s a deliberate attempt to trick the taxpayer. They try to make you believe it’s a savings when the $7,000 is actually a deduction to the assessed value.”

Last year, the company ran afoul of the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, which filed a civil claim alleging the company made false statements to the public and engaged in unfair competitive practices. As part of a settlement involving the district attorney’s office and California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the company agreed to send refund offers to San Diego County residents and alter its offer letters to make it clearer that it’s not a government agency.

San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Tricia Pummill said Monday that she hasn’t seen the letters distributed in Santa Clara County, but others she’s seen meet the requirements of the settlement.

Legal or not, Stone said the letters endanger residents because people who use the service must provide their social security numbers, which is required by the assessor to receive the exemption.

“We guard that very securely. Most employees don’t have access to that file,” he said. “Even if they’re not trying to mine for social security numbers, how are they maintaining security? With identity thefts at record levels, I’d be concerned about giving my social security number out to some outfit headquartered in Chicago.”

Beth Fancsali, a partner in the Chicago firm of Wildman Harrold Allen & Dixon, said her client provides a valuable service to homeowners.

“The company provides valuable information to people who may not otherwise know about the exemption or evaluation services that are available,” she said.

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