Residents warned of tax scam

DOWNEY - Los Angeles County officials are warning homeowners to be wary of solicitations from private companies offering to file property assessment reduction forms for a hefty fee.Property assessments can be done by the county's Assessor's Department for free. "We are again receiving calls from homeowners who have been sent these deceptive mailers, many of which could be mistaken for government notices and mislead property owners into thinking they must pay at least $100 to apply for a review of their assessed value," said Los Angeles County Assessor Rick Auerbach. "Because of the real estate market downturn, however, my office will begin reviewing nearly 500,000 residential properties for their 2009 assessed values. "We don't charge a fee for this," Auerbach continued, "and anyone whose homes are reviewed will receive a letter in June notifying them of the results." One firm is charging $179 to file a decline-in-value application, as well as a "late fee" of $30. The company is the subject of investigations in several counties, Auerbach said. "What is particularly disturbing about the latest solicitation from this firm is that it misleads the homeowner by mixing up years. The mailer states that the firm will represent the homeowner in an assessment appeal, when in fact, the last date to appeal was November 30th," Auerbach said. "If the soliciation is for 2009, assessments have not yet been made. Therefore, this firm won't know what the 2009 assessed value is until after our review of the 500,000 homes is completed in June and the homeowner is notified. "At best, these are legal but sophisticated scams taking advantage of homeowners who don't understand that my office will do a reassessment on its own," Auerbach said. "Or anyone can file a simple application form available on our website...This can be completed in a few minutes. The form suggests including comparable sales if known, but that section can be left blank and we will still do the review. "At worst, these private soliciations may even violate laws which require very specific language and disclaimers that they are not being sent by a goverment agency," Auerbach continued. "The 2008 decline-in-value review recently completed by my office resulted in lower assessments on nearly 130,000 homes and condos with an average property tax savings of $750. At least 1,000 of the reviews we initiated involved unnecessary forms submitted by these private companies at great expense to the homeowner." Anyone who has already paid for the unnecessary servuce may be eligible for a refund, particularly homeowners who thought they were dealing with a government agency, said Pastor Herrera Jr., consumer affairs director for Los Angeles County. Residents can file a complaint, or review a company's complaint history, by calling (800) 973-3370. While anyone has the right to file a decline-in-value application requesting a review of their property's value, Auerbach urged those who bought their house or condo in 2002 or later to wait until June when the results of the review will be mailed. If a letter is not received, or the owner is not satisfied with the results of the review, a decline-in-value application can be submitted. ********** Published: February 6, 2009 - Volume 7 - Issue 42