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Watson Coleman, Sollami Covello Announce Bill to Regulate Private Deed Companies Who Prey On Unsuspecting Homeowners

Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman was joined by Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello today to announce legislation that will help crack down on a growing practice by private companies who prey on unsuspecting homeowners by charging exorbitant prices to provide a certified deed copy, a service that county clerk offices provide to the general public at only a nominal fee.

“It’s easy to see why many homeowners can fall victim to this scam because often times the private company tries to pass themselves off as an official government agency,” said Watson Coleman (D-Mercer). “This legislation will shine a spotlight on their true motivations and let homeowners know that they can receive this same service for a fraction of the cost through the county.”

The two Mercer County representatives have been working together as the practice has become more prevalent since Sollami Covello’s office first became aware of it last year. Watson Coleman’s legislation would require, among other things, that all deed solicitors register with the state Division of Consumer Affairs.

“Be warned – no homeowner needs to pay $69.50 to a private company for a certified copy of their deed. It is regretful that a company would prey upon unknowing, financially overburdened homeowners, especially during this difficult economy, by offering a service that already exists at the Mercer County Clerk’s office for a low cost,” stated Sollami Covello.

The bogus mail solicitations are so wide spread in the region that Sollami Covello herself has received a solicitation at home. Her office has put out a number of alerts to Mercer County homeowners warning them about a direct mail solicitation from a private company offering to provide them with a certified copy of their deed at a cost of $69.50.

The name of the company listed on the letterhead of the solicitation is “National Deed Service, Inc.,” with a Northbrook, Illinois address, and a toll-free number. The letter is being sent in official looking Mercer County government-type envelopes advising property owners that their deed is recorded by the County Clerk and leads the recipient to believe a certified copy of the deed is necessary.

Thus far, swindlers have been successful because they utilize the public’s right to land ownership data and have covered themselves by working within a narrow framework of the law.

Under Watson Coleman’s bill, deed solicitors who use a written form of communication to solicit new clients would be required to include in a clear, conspicuous, and prominent manner the address and telephone number of the appropriate county clerk’s office through which the recipients can obtain a copy of the deed directly and the fee that the county clerk’s office would charge for providing the consumer with a copy of the deed. The deed solicitor would also be required under the bill to file a copy of any written communication used to solicit new clients with both the Division of Consumer Affairs and the appropriate county clerk’s office 15 days prior to distributing the communication.

The Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs would be authorized by the bill to refuse to issue or renew, or to suspend or revoke, the registration of any person who violates the bill’s provisions. Violations would fall under the Consumer Fraud Act and be punishable by a monetary penalty of up to $10,000 for a first offense and up to $20,000 for any subsequent offense. In addition, a violation can result in cease and desist orders issued by the Attorney General, the assessment of punitive damages and the awarding of treble damages and costs to the injured.

Solami Covello stressed that Mercer County homeowners may obtain a certified copy of their recorded deed, at anytime, at their convenience, directly from the Mercer County Clerk’s Office for the cost of only $1.50 per page and a certification charge of $10.00. Homeowners who cannot go to the Clerk’s Office in person may send a letter of request to the County Clerk’s Office, but are advised to first call the Recording Section of the Mercer County Clerk’s Office at (609) 989-6464 and provide their complete property address, purchase date and lot and block number if available, along with the full name of the owner so that they can be properly advised as to the appropriate payment information and mailing instructions.

Watson Coleman intends to formally introduce the legislation on Thursday.