This week’s article addresses a growing concern our office has seen in recent weeks. A small portion of our practice involves assisting clients in preparing deeds for real property located within the Commonwealth. Our office has recently received several phone calls from both younger and elderly clients who are concerned to have received what appears to be an invoice from an organization calling itself “Local Records Office.”
Consumer organizations such as this have been prevalent for some time. What makes this particular practice worrisome for seniors is that the name of this organization implies that it is a government agency. A quick search of this organization will turn up newspaper articles in various parts of the country over the past few years warning individuals about the organization. Our office is increasingly concerned that similar organizations are preying on our most vulnerable population.
If you have never received a solicitation from “Local Records Office,” their process is fairly simple. First, they search publicly available records for recent real estate transactions. Then they send new owners letters which appear to be official correspondence requesting a fee of around $89 for a “property profile” report and a copy of their deed. This fee is often similar to the recording fee paid to record the recent property transfer. Correspondence also includes a detachable coupon to be mailed back to the organization along with your payment and includes a “Please Respond By” seemingly implying a penalty for failure to respond by the date provided.
Individuals receiving this letter reasonably believe that it is an invoice from the local Recorder of Deeds Office for fees associated with the recent real estate transfer. We are often met with statements from clients indicating “I thought we already paid the recording fees.” We can usually explain to our clients that the correspondence they received is not from a government organization but is rather a solicitation that they should throw away. However, not all clients will call prior to taking action. Inevitably someone will view this correspondence as an invoice from a local government agency with a due date and pay the fee.
Recent purchasers of real estate should be aware that they are not required to possess a deed to their property to prove ownership if that deed has been recorded. Owners can also obtain a copy of their deed from the local Recorder of Deeds Office for the county where the property is located at a much lower price – or for no charge at all. The information provided in the property profile from “Local Records Office” is information that often can be obtained by accessing your local county’s website. For instance, Cumberland County offers online information regarding property located in the county by accessing “gis.ccpa.net/PropertyMapper.”
The organization attempts to notify the recipient that it is not associated with any government agency. If one looks closely at the document provided by Local Records Office, there appears to be a disclaimer which provides:
LOCAL RECORDS OFFICE IS NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE COUNTY IN WHICH YOUR DEED IS FILED IN, NOR AFFILIATED WITH ANY GOVERNMENT AGENCIES. THIS OFFER SERVES AS A SOLICITING FOR SERVICES AND NOT TO BE INTERPRETED AS BILL DUE. THIS PRODUCT OR SERVICE HAS NOT BEEN APPROVED OR ENDORSED BY ANY GOVERNMENTAL AGENCY, AND THIS OFFER IS NOT BEING MADE BY AN AGENCY OF GOVERNMENT. THIS IS NOT A BILL THIS IS A SOLICITATION YOU ARE UNDER NO OBLIGATION TO PAY THE AMOUNT STATED, UNLESS YOU ACCEPT THIS OFFER.
Pennsylvania consumer protection laws seek to address confusing solicitations by protecting consumers from practices which “cause the likelihood of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the affiliation, connection or association with, or certification by, another.”
It is unclear whether the disclaimer above prevents the average consumer from being confused as to the affiliation of the organization sending the correspondence. What is clear is that elderly individuals, especially those individuals with mild cognitive impairments such as dementia, are more vulnerable to confusion and more likely to misunderstand correspondence received from an organization such as “Local Records Office.”
If you are aware of a loved one (regardless of their age) who has recently transferred property or will be transferring property in the future, please provide them with this information so that they are aware of this organization and can make an informed decision regarding the need for its services.
Please check our website, www.keystoneelderlaw.com, for a schedule of helpful seminars and events related to aging and legal issues.
By Ryan Webber, Attorney