What would you say if you were asked to pay $35 for a free service? What if you were sent a letter from an Austin-based company offering to file vital paperwork with your county clerk's office.
"It sounds like a scam to me," new Stephenville homeowner Will Taylor said.
Taylor said the deal had just been sealed on the purchase of his new home in Stephenville when an "official-looking" letter appeared in his mailbox. It was addressed to Taylor, from "Homestead Recording Service," out of Austin.
The company offered to help the new homeowner with vital paperwork.
Here is Homestead's sales pitch: Send $35 and they will prepare your designation of homestead paperwork for you. The pitch comes with an attached note: "Once your document has been prepared, instructions for recording will be sent. For your convenience an optional recording and delivery service will be made available to you for an additional fee which does include the required $14 to $20 recording fee by the county clerk's office."
While the letter also includes several disclaimers, it also cites Texas Property Tax Code and excerpts from the constitution, which makes it all seem to be on the "up and up."
Taylor said the fact that the letter included the date he purchased his home made it even more convincing, but a little searching on the World Wide Web returned a list of publications calling the company a fraud and the service a scam.
While he wasn't going for the ruse, Taylor said his main concern is that senior citizens could quickly fall victim to the scam, and be bilked of their money.
In speaking with a friend who also recently purchased a home, Taylor learned the company is trolling through property records to find potential victims.
"My buddy got the same letter," Taylor said.
Taylor and his buddy are among many homeowners across the state who have reportedly received the letter, according to online reports that date back to 2005 and earlier.
For some, the "designation of homestead" can be easily confused with filing a homestead exemption with the local appraisal district.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of Homestead Recording Service and the "service" the company offers, the Empire-Tribune spoke with Erath County Chief Appraiser Jerry Lee, County Clerk Gwinda Jones and County Attorney Lisa Pence.
Lee said a homestead exemption allows tax cuts on your principle residence. But Lee said the exemption form is a simple form that can be completed at the local appraisal office free of charge.
What's more, Lee said appraisal district staff will offer the assistance without an added fee. Lee said the form is simple and requires little - all you have to do is show valid identification, check a box on a form and apply your signature for verification.
Lee also said homeowners across the state and nation have fallen victim to variations of the scam, including a family recently caught in the middle of a lawsuit in Houston. He said the Houston homeowner used a similar service to file their exemption and found themselves caught in a taxpayers' nightmare - their filing fee had been taken and the forms were never filed.
Pence and Jones shed some light on the "designation of homestead" form, which is typically filed in the county clerk's office.
Jones said there are fees associated with filing the designation, but the documentation is not required and is rarely needed.
Pence also called the service "unnecessary."
"You are not required to file a designation," Pence said, explaining that there are instances that might justify the filing. "Occasionally, if there is judgement against you, you will be given an opportunity to file the designation."
She said that the designation also allows individuals filing for bankruptcy to protect their homes. But she said the opportunity will be given to you at that time.
Finally, Pence said she understood how unsuspecting property owners could be easily duped.
"It appears to be a legal document," Pence said. "The general public might look at the document and believe it needs to be filed immediately."
County officials are urging area homeowners to contact their offices if questions arise.
The Erath County Appraisal District, located at 1390 Harbin Drive in Stephenville, can be reached by calling 965-5434. The office of County Clerk Gwinda Jones is located inside the Erath County Courthouse, and the phone number is 965-1482.