What San Antonio homeowners need to know about scams, come-ons and offers jamming their mailbox

Photo of Madison Iszler
Some of the mail I received soon after buying my first house.

Some of the mail I received soon after buying my first house.

Madison Iszler / Staff photographer

When I bought my first house a few weeks ago, I expected the first mail I’d get there would be an invitation to a friend’s baby shower and the latest issue of Texas Monthly.

Instead, a few days after I moved in my mailbox was stuffed with envelopes with alarming wording containing letters that initially appeared to be from my mortgage company and a strange “designation of homestead request form.”

When I first saw them, my heart skipped a beat. I worried I’d missed one of the dozens of steps required to get a mortgage, despite my neurotic late-night research and many checklists.

An ominous “ATTENTION: FINAL NOTICE” warning blared from one envelope. “INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR MORTGAGE.”

“Important personal and confidential information enclosed,” another screeched next to a “processing number.”

My name, my mortgage company’s name and my loan amount were included in many of the letters. As I sorted through the pile, I found signs the senders may not be who I thought at first glance or, worse, scammers.

Tipoffs: bright pink letters, mismatched fonts and return envelopes with strange addresses.

Some of the letters were from legitimate companies following the rules, with paragraphs stating they were not affiliated with any lending institution. But including my mortgage company’s name at the top of their materials made me think at first that that’s where the missives were coming from. And in some instances the disclaimers were in small type and placed at the bottom.

The homestead request form, offering a “designation of homestead” for $35, gave me the most pause.

It looked like it could be official. The document asked for a variety of information, had sections of the state constitution and property code printed on the back and included a stamped date by which to reply. There was a web address to fill it out online.

At first I assumed it was related to a homestead exemption on property taxes, which reduces property tax bills by allowing homeowners to pay taxes on only a percentage of their home value. Why would I turn that down?

Then, at the very top and below the fill-in fields, I noticed the disclaimers stating that the designation of homestead is not a homestead tax exemption and the form is not an official state document.

Apparently I’m not the only Texan who’s been confused by this type of form.

Attorney General Ken Paxton put out a press release in 2018 warning homeowners to watch out for what he called “misleading letters” because exemptions are available via counties for free.

At the time, his office’s Consumer Protection Division had received more than 100 complaints from property owners who received the forms and in some instances mailed back money.

“I urge anyone who has received a solicitation offering a ‘designation of homestead’ that they believe is deceptive to please call my office’s consumer hotline at 800-621-0508 and report it,” Paxton said.

New homeowners are frequently flooded with letters, phone calls and texts — some of it junk from verifiable companies but also messages from con artists posing as their lender, title company or real estate agent.

“Many times they confuse the buyer — mixed messaging,” said Jason Meza, regional director in San Antonio at the Better Business Bureau.

Several examples are on the rise: fake utility bills threatening to cut off electricity if payment isn’t made, false property tax payment notices and third-party companies offering to help homeowners pay off their mortgages faster by sending bimonthly payments with administrative fees tacked on.

There are companies that offer legitimate products and some that solicit fees for services that consumers can actually do on their own for free. But scammers try to frighten homeowners into buying fake policies and warranties, Meza said.

There’s also been an uptick in wire fraud and home improvement fraud as the housing market has exploded during the coronavirus pandemic and homeowners have taken on renovation projects.

“I’m telling many of our consumers and homeowners who are filing complaints to never ever wire money outside of the agreement you have in place with your title company or with your Realtor,” he said.

To figure out if a company is legitimate, you can search for it on the Better Business Bureau’s website, at BBB.org.

There are also options for reducing the amount of unwanted mail and calls you receive.

The Federal Trade Commission recommends registering at the Direct Marketing Association’s consumer website, DMAchoice.org, and choosing what mail and email you want to receive. There’s a $2 processing fee for the 10-year registration.

To opt out of credit card and insurance offers, you can visit optoutprescreen.com or call 888-567-8688, according to the FTC. For calls, you can register for the National Do Not Call Registry by visiting donotcall.gov.

“Those are services to mitigate the amount of it,” Meza said. “It doesn’t eliminate them because scammers don’t play by the rules. They will do whatever they can to get into your inbox and mailbox.”

Keep an eye out for suspicious text messages, too. Scammers will pose as a mortgage or title company and say they are accepting earnest money via payment apps such as Cash App.

“The proliferation of technology has increased the chance of getting scammed,” he said. “We opened up so many more channels.”

madison.iszler@express-news.net