AG, city clerks warn homeowners of deed notices
A company under the name of “Record Transfer Service” has been mailing letters to new Warwick homeowners, attempting to sell them copies of property deeds for $83. A deed can be purchased at City Hall for about $4.
The processing notices list that the “Record Transfer Service” is located at 1776 I Street NW 9th Floor Washington, D.C. 20006.
While Max Stockton, a supervisor for the company, says the offer is not a trick, a few local people believe it’s misleading, including City Clerk Marie Ahlert.
“They do disclose in the letter that you don’t need to do it, but I only read through the first portion of the letter and I know that my 92-year-old father wouldn’t read that letter – he’d only read through the first portion of the letter, and say, ‘I’d better send away for this,’ then write out a check,” Ahlert said in an interview last week. “I sent out an email to all the clerks across the state, and a couple of them had heard of it, and the rest of them had not. They are going to keep their eyes open for it. I felt that as a group we should probably inform our constituents that this is out there.”
Susan Henrikson, a recording clerk at City Hall, said her father, who is originally from Rhode Island but had been living in New Hampshire for the past 15 years, recently moved to Warwick. He closed on his home Oct. 17 and got the notice just before Thanksgiving.
“He knows I work in the clerk’s office, so he saved it so I could look at it,” Henrikson said. “At first glance, you think it’s for real. It’s not until you really read everything that you get the sense that it’s not.”
Henrikson said she fears that the company is targeting elderly people, as well as first-time homeowners. She worries that people might receive the letter and be under the impression that they are liable to pay the fee.
“It’s awful that they are preying on unsuspecting people,” said Henrikson. “I feel bad for people who may not know any better.”
Henrikson, as well as Ahlert, said deeds can easily be obtained by visiting City Hall. A person seeking a deed is not responsible for providing a license to secure the document. Changing city policy isn’t an option, as this type of information must be available to the public.
“I wonder if there’s someone who comes in once a month and looks up new deeds,” said Henrikson, also noting that she thinks $83 is an “unusual amount” for the company to charge for a copy.
Ahlert said she thinks it’s a scam.
“I think people need to be really cautious because if they pay for this document, they are getting ripped off,” she said. “It’s not something that we support.”
Other city and town clerks agree. On Dec. 7, Cynthia Drummond of The Westerly Sun reported that Richmond Town Clerk Tracy Nelson Hay also believes the company is attempting to scam people.
Ahlert and Hay, as well as Scituate Town Clerk Margaret Long, have also contacted other clerks in the state to make them aware of the issue.
Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin recently issued a press release warning Rhode Islanders of the letters. The release notes that the letters look official, as they each list property information, including parcel and zone identification, and that recent homebuyers are targeted and urged to respond quickly.
According to the release, the letters are being issued shortly after a property closes by multiple agencies, and that “news reports warning property owners of this type of solicitation have surfaced across the country.”
“You do not have to pay exorbitant fees for a copy of your deed,” Kilmartin said in the release. “When you purchase a home, your title company should process the deed so there is no need to pay a secondary agency for what you probably have already or can obtain yourself from your Town Clerk’s office for a few dollars. These solicitations do not come from a governmental agency; they are private companies trying to take advantage of unsuspecting homeowners.”
Kilmartin also noted that, “without close inspection, people may just toss these notices in their pile of bills to be paid. Especially at this time of year when finances are tight for many families, we do not want new homeowners to fall victim to this deceptive marketing.”
But Stockton said it’s not a scam. Instead, he said it’s a service of convenience.
“We provide a copy of a property grant deed to new homeowners,” he said during a phone interview Thursday afternoon. “It’s not a blanket mail piece. It only goes to people who have purchased a new home, not to every individual property owner. For many people, it’s a valuable service because they don’t have the time, nor the inclination to go down the courthouse, and spend how many hours it takes to figure out what they have to do. We’re not in sales – we’re not a sales department – we’re a data retrieval department.”
Even though it does cost less to obtain a copy at City Hall, said Stockton, if anyone calls saying that they already have a copy of their property grant deed, or feel that they can get it cheaper elsewhere, he and company representatives inform callers that they are under no obligation to purchase the deed through them.
“Our goal is not to confuse people,” he said. “If they are confused about it, I’m certainly sorry. But this letter is pretty much self-evident that it’s a service of convenience, and it actually states that they can get it cheaper going somewhere else.”
When asked why the company charges $83, he said he wasn’t sure how to reply to the question. Still, he provided an answer.
“You can buy a $5 steak at the grocery store and bring it home, or you can go to a steakhouse and spend $30 for that steak,” said Stockton. “How do they determine their pricing? I don’t know. You can wash your car for free at your house, or you could go to a car wash and pay $19.99 to do it. Just because someone has a fee for a product doesn’t mean they’re a scam. It doesn’t mean that they are cheating people.”
Stockton also said having a copy of a property grant deed can come in handy for homeowners, and even save them money in the long run.
He provided examples of possible errors that are made in recording the deeds, including that a spouse may not be accounted for on the deed, a former owner or financial institution might still be listed, or the square footage or number of bedrooms in the home may be recorded improperly.
“If you have a copy of your property grant deed, then it’s much easier to correct the problems, and correct any difficulties,” Stockton said. “If you’re driving around in a BMW but your pink slip says you’re driving around in a Ford Fusion and you get into an accident and your car gets totaled, they’re replacing a Ford Fusion. They’re not going to replace a BMW.”
As far as how the company obtains copies of the deeds in order to send them to buyers, he said he’s not “exactly sure,” noting that it’s not a large operation. He went on to say, “It’s public information. Property grant deeds are not too difficult to get. If you buy a home and you do not have a copy of your property grant deed, you’re working every day. I can tell you I sure don’t have the time to go to the county courthouse and figure it out. This would be a good service for me and it is for people who use it. There are always different sides, and different stories.”
Stockton added that if someone sent them money for a deed, and then discovered that they already have a copy, the company refunds the money immediately. He also said they allow people in that scenario to keep the copy.
To any disgruntled customers, he said, “We’d be more than happy to give them a free property grant deed.”
When the 888-835-4460 number listed on the notice was called by a Warwick Beacon reporter inquiring about the services, explaining that several Warwick residents believed the company intended to scam people, the person who answered the phone said that the deed processing notice does, in fact, list that “certified copies of property deeds are available at the county clerk’s office. The county clerk’s office may charge a small fee for certified copies of such deeds, usually between two and four dollars a page. Since most property deeds are between two and five pages in length, a certified copy can usually be obtained for between four and twenty dollars.”
The Attorney General’s office advises people who believe to be victims of consumer fraud to contact the Consumer Protection Unit at the Department of Rhode Island Attorney General at 274-4400, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Homeowners can also download a consumer complaint by visiting www.riag.ri.gov.