Urgent! – Act Before You Can Think!

I have a bad habit of staying up way past my “bedtime.”  Occasionally, I’ll have the TV on and there is one commercial that runs very late at night constantly.  The commercial advertises an opportunity to be part of a “trial” for a cosmetic product and have a chance to be in a commercial.  The ad says that there is a “limit” to the number of participants.  Those with last names beginning with A through L should call right way and those with last names beginning with M through Z should call the next morning at 9:00 am.  It always makes me chuckle because of course it doesn’t really matter when you call or what letter your last name begins with: the idea is to create a sense of urgency to get you to pick up the phone right away.  

The sense of urgency is a common strategy to fool people into acting before thinking.  Unfortunately, it works very well and sometimes it is used for purposes less innocuous than trying out cosmetic products.  

In my last column I wrote about a common scam where a letter is sent to potential victims informing them that they have won a sweepstakes and encouraging them to take steps that will eventually lead to fraud and theft.  The letter uses many psychological techniques such as utilizing the names of well-known and trusted companies, ostensibly giving the recipient a check, not asking for personal information right away, giving instructions not to discuss the matter with third parties, and conveying the message that action must be taken right away.  

Another scam I often see has to do with copies of deeds to real property.  A common aspect of estate planning involves executing and recording deeds to transfer real property into or out of a revocable living trust or a legal entity such as an LLC.  Typically, the attorney will prepare the deeds for the client to sign and will then send them to the county to be recorded.  After several weeks, the local recorder returns the original deeds to the client.  The same process will occur any time real property is bought and sold or any time a mortgage is paid off.  These transactions are public records.  There are several deceitful companies that try to take advantage of unsuspecting property owners.  

The companies will send the property owners a notice that is designed to appear that the sender is a government agency.  The notice will often reference various legal code sections implying that the property owner is required by law to act within a relatively short period of time.  The notice urges the property owner to send a check for $80 or more in order to obtain a copy of the deed.  However, (1) there is really no legal requirement for the property owner to do anything, (2) the property owner often already has a copy of the deed, and (3) if the property owner were to need another copy of the deed, such a copy could be obtained directly from the county or from a reputable service for less than $10.  

The word, “urgent,” written on the envelope and on the notice will often be enough for the property owner to immediately send payment without thinking.  By the time the unnecessary and overpriced copy of the deed is sent the property owner, the property owner has often had enough time to realize that it was a scam.  

I recently discovered another similar situation where a company purporting to provide help to consumers sent an “urgent notice” to my client about his “limited time” to exit his timeshare.  The letter directed the recipient to call for a “complimentary consultation.”  This was of a particular concern to my client because he had hired me years earlier to help him dispose of his timeshare.  He thought that the notice meant that he did not properly dispose of this timeshare and that he owed unpaid dues and fees.  

I was immediately suspicious of the notice because I knew that we had successfully disposed of the timeshare years before.  I had copies of the legal paperwork in my file demonstrating that he no longer owned the timeshare.  I called the company that sent him the notice and confirmed that it uses public databases of timeshare owners.  The company admitted that the database could be outdated and that it sends thousands of notices to possible timeshare owners “fishing” for responses.  Again, the sense of urgency that the letter created triggered an immediate response.

With the amount of personal information that is available to the public today, these deceitful practices will likely increase.  Always view any such communication with skepticism, particularly if the notice implies that you must act right away.  When in doubt, search the Internet for the name of the organization or ask a trusted advisor to review the communication on your behalf.  

The best practice might be to wait a few days despite the ostensible urgency of the situation to think about it a little further.  Once you have calmed your nerves and you are able to think rationally, you will be in a better position to distinguish between a legitimate notice that needs to be addressed and deceitful advertisements that can be dismissed.    

KRASA LAW, Inc. is located at 704-D Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove, California, and Kyle may be reached at 831-920-0205831-920-0205.

Disclaimer: This article is intended for general information only.  Reading this article does not establish an attorney/client relationship.  Before acting on any of the information presented in this article, you should consult a competent attorney who is licensed to practice law in your community.