After her husband died, Dani Brusius recently transferred her Ventura County property to her name alone. She paid $2 for a copy of the deed and $1 to certify the change.
Then came the official-looking letter from Local Records Office.
It wanted $89 for the same service.
“The letter seems very official,” Brusius, 62, told me. “It looks like they’re preying on widows and others who have just been through stuff.”
I wrote recently about the problem of direct-mail marketing campaigns masquerading as government correspondence. I called for legislation making such practices illegal.
The letter from Local Records Office is yet another illustration of this dubious practice. It also highlights how private companies try to dupe people into paying big bucks for public services they can accomplish themselves for free or a fraction of the cost.
A loophole in state law makes all this possible. Section 17500 of the California Business and Professions Code prohibits any advertising that is “untrue or misleading.”
Meanwhile, Section 17200 bans “any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice, and unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising.”
Senders of official-looking direct mail get around these restrictions by including language — often in fine print — declaring that the correspondence is not in fact official. Such a disclosure makes it the consumer’s responsibility to figure out what’s happening.
When the rest of the package is bending over backward to fool you, however, these disclosures can be easily overlooked.
The envelope from Local Records Office, which uses a Norwalk post office box as its mailing address, states that “this is not a government approved or authorized document.”
But much more prominently it declares: “Important property information. Respond immediately.”
It also warns: "$2,000 fine, 5 years imprisonment or both for any person interfering or obstructing with deliver of this letter, U.S. Mail TTT.18 Sec 1702 U.S. Code.”
Indeed, Section 1702 of the U.S. Code prohibits anyone from messing with mail “with design to obstruct the correspondence.” This applies to all mail, not just from Local Records Office.
The enclosed letter declares that “Local Records Office is not affiliated with the county in which your deed is filed, nor affiliated with any government agencies.”
But everything else suggests otherwise. The letter includes publicly available information on the specific property’s assessed value, square footage, year of construction, a “Property ID No.” and a “service fee” of $89.
“Please detach coupon and mail with your check,” the letter instructs.
Brusius noted that Local Records Office even splurged on first-class postage. “That makes it look like they’re serious,” she said.
No one at Local Records Office returned my call or email. Each time I connected with a service rep, the line went dead as soon as I identified myself as a journalist.
The company’s website says it creates “property profile reports” that can be useful in determining home values.
According to legal filings, Local Records Office is the alias of a Southern California firm called LA Investors. Depending on which filing you examine, the company is based in Norwalk, Rolling Hills Estates, Lomita, Paramount or Bellflower.
The Better Business Bureau, which gives Local Records Office a grade of F, identifies the company’s chief executive as Juan Roberto Romero Ascencio. Some filings name him as Roberto Romero.
Whatever else, he’s no stranger to questions being raised about his marketing tactics.
In 2012, a North Carolina judge ordered Ascencio to stop sending “misleading” letters from Local Records Office to local consumers. Similar injunctions subsequently were issued by nearly half a dozen other states.
Washington state fined Local Records Office more than $3.6 million several years ago for allegedly violating state law “at least 256,998 times.”
“These fraudsters sought to line their pockets by selling government documents at a ridiculous mark-up,” Washington Atty. Gen. Bob Ferguson said at the time.
A spokeswoman for California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra declined to comment on whether there’s “a potential or ongoing investigation” of the company.
My guess is that letters from Local Records Office are automatically prompted by any change in public property records. When Brusius altered the name on her deed, that may have triggered the solicitation.
The Better Business Bureau’s site includes a statement from the company posted last month.
“We, at Local Records Office, are a legitimate business entity,” it says. “We make it clear that we are not a government agency or are associated with any governmental agency.”
The statement goes on to say that “there is nothing false, misleading or deceptive within which we operate our business. We make it clear to the consumer that our letter is a solicitation and not a bill.”
It’s an open question whether that distinction is “clear to the consumer.”
I can imagine various scenarios in which the recipient of one of Local Records Office’s letters — a senior, say, perhaps mourning the death of a loved one — might overlook the declarations of unofficial status and instead think a payment of $89 is due for official record-keeping purposes.
It’s all about the overall presentation of the mailer. And Local Records Office, like so many other businesses sending out questionable solicitations, doesn’t pass the smell test.
The only reason such companies have to repeatedly declare they’re not government agencies is because they go out of their way to make themselves look like government agencies.
And the only reason to do that is to deceive people.
Stephen Whitmore, a spokesman for L.A. County Assessor Jeffrey Prang, said homeowners should closely examine any official-looking mailers.
“Property owners should beware of deed scams and unsolicited mailings designed to look as if they’ve been issued by a government agency,” he said.
The solution, I’ll say again, is a law that prohibits nonofficial communications from appearing to be official — with hefty fines for crossing the line.
California already forbids advertising that’s “untrue or misleading.” It’s time for lawmakers to clarify that this applies to mailers disguised as official letters.
If the services provided by Local Records Office are on the up and up, they won’t need to rely on sneaky marketing to drum up business.
In fact, I’d love to see how they make the case for charging $89 for $3 worth of service.