Some of the pitches bear government-sounding names. Others convey stern warnings that "property owners should have an official or certified copy of their deed." Whatever their form, the letters that arrive at many American homes certainly generate notice.
As does the price they quote: For anywhere from $59.95 to $157, they offer to provide you a copy of the deed to your home — the same deed that you can get from your local government for as little as $2 and typically no more than $15.
Some versions of the letters look like a bill. One warns that an additional $35 will be tacked to its $87 charge if you don't order by month's end.
But don't be fooled. You have no obligation to pay, and you should think long and hard before giving big money any company for a document you can secure on your own for a fraction of the cost.
Some of the letters are nothing more than "junk mail," says the Washington state attorney general.
So if you want a deed, you can contact your community's property registry — it's generally at a county office or courthouse — to find out how to get it directly. Some let you apply online, while others let you do it by mail.
Paying for convenience
It's perfectly legal for companies to provide this service, even at a high price. And in their mailings and recorded messages at their corporate phone numbers, they disclose that they're not affiliated with a government agency.
The companies say that what they provide is a convenience service for people who'd rather not navigate government offices or websites. Just as you can wash your car yourself for free, you can pay someone else $25 to do it.
The companies send out personalized mailings after getting homeowners' information from public records or purchased lists. Often they rent P.O. boxes in different states to collect responses, creating the impression of a local affiliation.
And when a homeowner orders a deed this way?
"All these companies do is contact us for those deed copies — just as any resident could," one county clerk in New Jersey tells Scam Alert. "And by law, I can only charge the companies $3 each." Several states have statutes limiting the price.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.