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Watch out for property tax ‘scam’
By Kevin McCallum
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Monday, February 9, 2009 at 7:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 9, 2009 at 7:27 p.m.
Joanna Flynn-Hill received an official looking letter in the mail last week promising to lower her tax bill by a whopping $2,136.
All she needed to do was send a check for $179 to Property Tax Reassessment, and the assessed value of her Montgomery Village home could be lowered by as much as $171,000, the letter claimed.
But then the 56-year-old Midway Drive resident took a closer look, and came to a troubling conclusion.
“This is dangerous. It’s a scam,” Flynn-Hill said.
County officials agree, and are warning residents not to fall for it.
The Sonoma County Assessor’s Office put out a “scam alert” Monday telling residents they don’t have to pay $179 to get their properties reassessed, as the letter offers. The county provides the exact same service for free.
“They don’t need this review and they don’t need to pay these fees,” said Bill Rousseau, the county’s deputy chief assessor.
Mendocino County Assessor/County Clerk/Recorder Susan Ranochak put out at similar warning Friday.
Both agencies are responding to a wave of letters sent to North Coast residents in recent days from a company calling itself “Property Tax Reassessment,” based in Los Angeles.
In small print, the company says it is a private company offering a service, not a government agency. But everything else about the letter gives the impression of being an official government document, Rousseau said.
The letter uses language like “Response Due by 2/26/09,” and threatens a “$30 late fee” for those who miss that deadline. It also contains a green return envelope similar to the one used by the tax collector to send out annual bills, Rousseau said.
The net result is a mailing that looks a lot like something that people need to return in order to get their property reassessed, which is not true, he said.
“We’re getting calls from a lot of seniors that are concerned, so obviously it’s confusing,” Rousseau said.
The assessor’s office has asked the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office to determine if the mailer violates laws designed to protect consumers from private companies masquerading as public agencies, Rousseau said.
Deputy District Attorney Matt Cheever said he’s looking into the matter.
Even before the letters arrived in residents’ mailboxes last week, the county was already planning to lower the assessed value of 25,000 properties without prompting from residents, Rousseau said. The assessor’s office did about that many last year, as well, in response to declining home values.
Michael Clos, who identified himself as a supervisor at Property Tax Reassessment, didn’t have any information about who owned the firm, how long it had been in business, or the scope of its operations.
But he said the company is not a scam.
“A scam is when people rip someone off. We don’t do that. We do work on the case,” he said.
Oakmont resident John Greig, 66, said he doubts they perform any work of value. Greig requested a property reassessment last year and the assessor actually reduced his property value more than he requested.
He received a copy of the letter recently and instantly knew the company was trying to cash in on people’s ignorance of the fact the process is free and simple.
“I don’t think they are performing a service at all,” he said.
Rousseau questions the quality of the work someone in Los Angeles working off a database can do. He said firms like this cropped up in the 1990s, and their “comparable sales” submitted with the applications were invariably off-base.
They also never followed through on their promises to help people with their appeals, he said.
Property owners can request a reduction by filling out a “Decline in Market Value form,” which is available on the county’s Web site, and they don’t have to pay a dime.
“We’re just try trying to save them money,” he said.
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