The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 19, 2013

Firm deal: $2 deed for $89

Fine print stopped Millersburg resident

By Joanne Arbogast
The Daily Item

MILLERSBURG — “Is this a scam?” asked Elizabeth D., of Millersburg. She shared an official-looking letter. On the envelope was stamped “Important property information. Respond immediately.” And there was a warning: “$2,000 fine, 5 years imprisonment or both for any person interfering or obstructing with delivery of this letter.”

Below that warning: “This is not a government document.”

The letter was from Local Records Office with an the address on Union Deposit Road, Harrisburg.

Elizabeth had purchased her recently deceased grandparents’ house and had the deed transferred to her name. The document she received from Local Records had all the correct information: the purchase/transfer date, the assessed value, the lot’s square footage and even the amount of recent improvements.

It also stated, “For a complete property profile and an additional copy of the only document that identifies you as a property owner usually called a deed, please detach coupon and return with an $89 processing fee ...  you will receive your documents within 21 business days.”

The attached “coupon” appears to be a legitimate-looking bill, with a “respond” — it doesn’t specify “due,” but certainly implies that — date of Feb. 2.

Elizabeth was minutes away from writing a check and sending it off before she examined the letter more closely. Elsewhere on the page it said “Local Records is not affiliated with the county in which your deed is filed, nor affiliated with any government agencies. This offer serves as a soliciting for services and not to be interpreted as a bill due. This product or service has not been approved or endorsed by any governmental agency ... you are under no obligation to pay the amount stated, unless you accept this offer.”

The most important information in the letter is this disclaimer: “You can obtain a copy of your deed or other record of your title from the county recorder in the county where your property is located.”

And what is the cost of a deed copy from a county recorder’s office? “Fifty cents a page,” said Regina Carey, entry clerk in the Northumberland County Register & Recorders Office.

And the number of pages of an average deed copy?

“About four pages,” she said.

So what is Local Records giving you for $89 that you can’t get for yourself for $2?

The representative who answered the phone at Local Records stumbled, and sounded as though she was reading from a script.

“We are just providing you with a property profile, in case you don’t have one,” she said. “It includes the transaction history, demographics of the area, the crime in your neighborhood ....”

“I doubt they can tell you about the crime in your neighborhood,” Carey countered.

Does she think it’s a scam?

“I think it is,” she said firmly. “Anyone can come in off the street and get a copy of a deed.”

In fact, she wonders if that isn’t what Local Records does: “They get your money and then go to the recorders office for the deed.”

Remember, in the letter they say you will receive your documents in 21 business days — there is no indication they already have your deed information. Rather, it sounds as though once Local Records receives your money, then they will get the material. The material you can get yourself in just minutes.

Carey said most of the information in a “property profile” can be obtained online. A quick web search supports that. For instance, one site called LandAccess.com offers public, county land documents and “allows searching of documents that are recorded in the country recorders office.”

Checking out Local Records online reveals plenty of complaints about the company from across the nation. In North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper put a stop to what he called “misleading letters” to residents from Local Records. “Trying to trick people into paying for free public records isn’t honest business,” he said in a report. “Consumers let us know about these letters and now we’re taking action to stop them.”

What Local Records is doing is misleading, and is careful with using language — such as not stating “due date” but rather “respond by,” instead of a bill calling it a “coupon” and adding disclaimers — that skirts the requirements of the law.

People who have recently gone through property closings might assume a letter from Local Records is just one more minor expense associated with buying a house, but stay alert and know what you are agreeing to before sending any money.