ELLSWORTH — As the city’s assessor, Larry Gardner is an expert on knowing how to get information such as the value of a particular property, what its tax bill is and how much it last sold for.
One thing he knows for sure is that it does not cost $83 to get that kind of data. It is, in fact, available for free.
He had heard of a company in California called Record Transfer Services that sent official-looking notices to homeowners telling them why its pricey service was necessary, but was not aware of anyone locally who was on the receiving end of such solicitation.
Not, at least, until last month. After buying a home in June, Gardner in July received a notice from the company urging him to quickly send it $83 in exchange for numbers he has easy access to at no cost.
“They certainly didn’t know who they were sending it to,” he said with a laugh.
Gardner did not keep the mailing he received, but said it looked exactly like one received by a Windham resident earlier in May. Windham’s assessor alerted Maine Revenue Services and the state agency shared a copy of the notice with assessors around the state.
Record Transfer Services said it would provide recipients with a copy of their “current grant deed and property assessment profile.” The company said the latter product, a proprietary term, “provides a wealth of information useful to understand a subject property’s makeup.”
That includes data such as total assessed value, total tax amount, tax year, values for up to 15 nearby properties and “subject property current recorded owner” — presumably, the recipient of the mailing.
While Gardner has easy access to such information, he is hardly alone.
Through either Ellsworth’s website (ellsworthmaine.gov) or that of the Hancock County Registry of Deeds (hancockcountydeeds.com), city residents have a wealth of information available at their fingertips with just the click of a mouse at any hour of the day or night.
Many other municipalities also offer their tax and property records online. In towns and cities that do not (or for someone who does not have Internet access), Gardner said the same information can be accessed by visiting the town office or Registry of Deeds in person.
“I can give you all this information — for free,” he said.
On the Registry of Deeds site, customers can search for and look at deeds and other records for free. To download documents, a small fee is charged (a copy of a two-page deed, for example, costs $1). There also is a fee for copies obtained at the Registry office in Ellsworth.
Record Transfer Service does not hide the fact it is a private company and not a government entity. In four different places on the notice it states that its services have not been approved or endorsed by the government, that the mailing is a solicitation and not a bill, and that the information it is providing is in fact available elsewhere.
“You can obtain a copy of your grant deed or other record of title from the county recorder in the county where your property is located in,” states a disclaimer at the top of the notice.
The company does not send the notices out for fun, though. The official look and feel of the notice is intended to turn the recipient into a paying customer, and that has not gone unnoticed by the authorities.
David Ledew, director of the Property Tax Division at Maine Revenue Services, told assessors he was concerned “that some people may be confused into paying for something that they may already have or may be obtained for a fraction of the cost at their local assessors’ office.”
In 2013, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills warned residents of such solicitations. A press release from her office said the mailings seemed “to be designed to alarm and deceive consumers into paying for a service at a higher cost.”
Other states have gone further. In 2015, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller filed a lawsuit against Record Transfer Services and its owner “alleging that the company solicited Iowans for $83 copies of property records that owners do not generally need.”
Miller said the “government sound-alike company” works to “dupe consumers into making ostensibly mandatory payments” for information the recipient “can otherwise get for free or for just a few dollars.”
In March of 2015, a judge in Iowa ordered the company to stop soliciting residents of the state, to provide refunds to customers and to pay the state $25,000. The company’s owner, Neil L. Camenker, had reportedly signed an agreement four years earlier to stop sending similar solicitations to Iowans while he was doing business under a different company name.
The Better Business Bureau gives the Record Transfer Services an “F.”
Attempts Thursday to contact Record Transfer Services to give someone there an opportunity to respond to the claims it dupes or deceives people with its notices were unsuccessful.
A visit to the company’s website, pxdocuments.com, shows only a large yellow road sign that reads “Web Under Construction” on top of yellow-and-black construction tape. The header for the page reads “Website Is Down.”
A phone call to the toll-free number listed on the mailed notice was similarly fruitless.
“Record Transfer Services is currently unable to process any new property assessment profiles and complimentary grant deeds at this time,” a woman’s recorded voice stated. “However, all previous orders will be fulfilled promptly. Thank you.”