Company charges homeowners for service they can do themselves for free

Posted Saturday, Mar. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Property tax exemptions

You can check the Tarrant Appraisal District's website, www.tad.org, for a listing of 10 property tax exemptions available for homeowners. If you don't have online access, call the district at 817-284-0024 and ask for an exemption form to be mailed to you.

If you have recently purchased a home, the agency will automatically mail a homestead exemption in late December or early January.

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A slippery solicitation that promises to save homeowners thousands of dollars in property taxes is again making the rounds in Tarrant County.

For $55, Chicago-based Property Tax Assessor Records Corp. says that it will file for an exemption for homeowners that will reduce the taxable valuation of a home by at least $5,000 each year for as long as the home is owned.

What the official-looking letter doesn't say is that for no cost homeowners themselves can file for a homestead or other exemptions with the Tarrant Appraisal District.

"I'm familiar with the company," said Donna Perlick, TAD's interim director of support services. "Most of the time they send them to new homeowners. I guess they pull copies of our information and records to show recently purchased properties and then they send out a form letter telling them that they can file the application for the homestead exemption on their behalf.

"They are providing a service, but they charge for it," Perlick said. "For $55, they fill out the form, have the homeowner sign it, then they submit it for them. But people can do it for free."

An exemption removes part of the value of a property from taxation. In Tarrant County there are 10 exemptions, including ones for disabled veterans and people over 65.

TAD automatically mails a homestead exemption application to people who have recently purchased a home. The forms are mailed in late December or early January after the district has processed the property deed. Homeowners can fill out the application online or call the district to have the form mailed, Perlick said.

When he got the solicitation last year, Arlington real estate agent Ken Davis thought the offer sounded fishy, so he mailed back the form but didn't include a check.

The company uses a Fort Worth post office box as its address on the letters but does not list a phone number.

"The thing that stuck with me was that because I was older I qualified for this. I just thought I would send it without money and see what happens," Davis said.

"I quickly got a letter back saying I had inadvertently not included a check and I should send a check immediately or I would miss out from getting the tax benefits that were guaranteed," he said.

"I smelled a scam among this stuff so I called the Tarrant County tax authority and read the letter to them and they said they get calls from people like me every few months and they said it was a pure scam."

Davis also mentioned the letter to several of his elderly real estate clients and was dismayed to find that some had fallen for the deal.

"They said, 'It was really going to be great when they start lowering our taxes 10 percent every year.' I just took a deep breath and said these people are ripping off the aged," he said.

The appraisal district hasn't had many complaints about the Chicago company this year, but in 2009 at least 1,000 property owners in Tarrant County sent the company money, according to duplicate applications tallied by the TAD.

In 2003 and 2004, Property Tax Assessor Records Corp. sent out about 581,000 solicitations to Southern California homeowners informing them they were eligible for a property tax exemption. More than 21,000 responded, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

The San Diego district attorney's office filed a lawsuit claiming that the company employed deceptive business practices. A survey by the office showed that the homeowners believed the solicitation was from a county office, despite a disclosure in small print that it was not, the newspaper reported.

The case was settled in July 2004 by the company, without admitting liability or wrongdoing. Under the terms of the settlement, the company must plainly disclose on its forms that it is not a government agency.

The letters Davis received do prominently state that the company is not affiliated with any government agency.

As long as that disclosure is clear, the company is not violating the law, said Charles Castillo, a spokesman for the Texas attorney general's office. He said the office has received 17 complaints about Property Tax Assessor Records Corp in the last two years.

"They can do this as long as they don't misrepresent themselves," Castillo said. "But how many people really read these things that carefully?"

The Better Business Bureau has recorded 26 complaints about the Chicago company.

"They are not breaking the law [and] as long as they give all that disclosure, they've done their job," said Stacey Tennerson, operations manager for the BBB in Fort Worth. "What it comes down to is as a consumer, before you buy something, you need to do your homework."

"You just need to be an informed consumer, that's the best you can do," she cautioned.

Since Davis signed the form, the company has sent him multiple letters saying his account is past due. "They keep sending me these increasingly aggressive dunning letters, and I throw them in the trash," he added.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981

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