Why pay for what costs nothing? It's always a good question, especially with private companies out there trying to charge you hefty fees for government or financial services that are usually free.
At best, what the companies do is legal but unnecessary. Sometimes they provide little more than you-do-the-legwork instructions to get documents at government offices and websites. At worst, their letters, phone calls and emails trick you by pretending to have official government affiliation—and for their fees, they do nothing but collect personal information for identity theft.
Your home's title is on record at the local courthouse or city hall. If you want a certified paper copy, just head to the county clerk or recorder's office. The cost is typically less than $2 per page or $10 total. Don't fall for a letter that appears to be an official bill to order a copy of your property deed, usually for $80 or more, and perhaps bears an "act before" date. Despite buzzwords such as "national," "U.S. government" or "official," these letters are from private companies. They glean property parcel numbers, assessed values and other details from public records to make their letters seem authentic. It's only in the small print, if anywhere, that you learn that it's not a required bill and the sender is not affiliated with any government agency.
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Another home-front hoax: letters and phone calls saying you can lower your property-tax bill. In this ruse, private companies charge up to $200 for another DIY freebie: filing a dispute of your property's current assessment. Many of these letters can look like invoices with implied government affiliation and contain phrases such as "tax readjustment" and "tax review."
This scheme tends to uptick when property tax bills are issued, which is during summer months for many homeowners. For no charge, you can request a property reassessment with your city or county assessor's office. You'll need to show evidence that market conditions mean you deserve a lower assessment. But before filing, consider the possible fallout: If property values in your area have been increasing, your plea could actually result in a higher tax bill.
They may charge $5,000 or monthly fees of $100, but there's nothing credit-repair services can legally do that you can't do yourself for free or at low cost. Promises to "remove bad debt" are false. All they'll do is challenge items in your credit file in hopes the credit bureau will remove them while it investigates. Accurate negative items on your credit report, such as bankruptcies, will reappear within months. Any claims by credit-repair companies saying they can provide a "new credit identity" are lies—and illegal.
Your best bet is to dispute—at no charge—any inaccurate information by directly contacting the credit bureaus yourself. Get instructions by typing "credit repair" into the search window at nolo.com or ftc.gov. You can also try negotiating with your creditors directly and offer to pay outstanding debts if the black marks are removed.
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For free or low-cost credit counseling and help with debt consolidation, call the nonprofit National Foundation for Credit Counseling at 800-388-2227. The NFCC is funded through grants and donations, has a network of community-based offices in every state, and offers a lot of helpful advice and tools for how to cope with debt.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.