Don't be fooled by property tax mailers

March 4, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
7 On Your Side reports on Bay Area homeowners tricked into paying for a property tax service that is actually free.

A series of past reports by 7 On Your Side warned about companies that promised to lower your property taxes for a fee. Those reports spurred at least one consumer to get her money back.

Like many of us, Tina Schwartz sees property values dropping all around, even in her nicely groomed San Jose neighborhood. And like thousands of homeowners, she received one of those tempting reassessment letters in the mail.

"It said that if I sent them $179 they would look into lowering my property taxes," Schwartz said. "It looked like it was from the county to me. It looked very legitimate, and I guess I really wanted to believe that I could lower my property taxes. It sounded like a good thing."

So she sent off the money. However, it did not go to the county, it went to an outfit called Property Tax Reassessment. It is one of several companies that sent out official looking mailers all across the state, charging fees and even tacking on late fees for a service that counties do for free.

"I think that's very deceiving," Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone said. "It's preying on the stress of a declining residential property market."

Stone said thousands of struggling homeowners paid fees for no reason, and once they realized it, could not get their money back. However, Schwartz was different.

"My fiance happened to be home and he had been watching 7 On Your Side and he said there was a segment on the exact thing I had done," she said.

Right after Schwartz mailed off the check, a 7 On Your Side report aired warning homeowners not to fall for these schemes.

"I was very lucky," Schwartz said, who had heard about our report and stopped payment on the check just in the nick of time. She became one of the few homeowners ever to get her $179 back.

She also may be one of the last to fall prey to these schemes. That is because a new state law just took effect, making these types of mailers illegal in California.

"Because frankly, they're deceptive. They're a scam and people were deceived by these letters thinking they came from us," San Francisco Assessor Phil Ting said.

Ting and the California Assessors Association pushed for the new bill. They say these companies did not do any good.

"We found no evidence they do the work," Ting said. "They haven't come into our office saying, 'Hey, we want you to reduce these properties.'"

The new law makes it a crime to send out tax reduction mailers that appear to be from the government or imply that fees are required for a property tax review. Also, mailers must say in big print that tax reviews are free at the county.

That makes a lot of sense to Schwartz.

"All of this, I think, will make it harder for people to get scammed, which is what happened to me," she said.

The owner of Property Tax Reassessment, Sean McConville, was arrested last year and charged with fraud. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of "failure to include the assessor's contact information" on the mailers and was sentenced to community service.

If you see more of these mailers, let us know about it. You can contact 7 On Your Side here.


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