Dear Consumer Ed:
I received a letter from a private consultant offering to dispute my property taxes with the county. The value of my house has declined significantly in the last year and it is now worth much less than what the property tax bill shows. Should I accept this offer? How do I know if it's legitimate?
Consumer Ed says:
If you believe the board of assessors incorrectly calculated the value of your home, you can appeal the assessed value. You do not need a consultant to assist you. The time within which an appeal must be filed may vary from county to county.
The letter you received may or may not be legitimate. Many legitimate companies are currently sending out letters advertising their services in connection with tax appeals. However, new and different scams are discovered all the time, so be careful and thoroughly research the business or person who sent the letter to you. For example, in 2010, Oregon property owners were flooded with fraudulent solicitations to send in $189 to get their property taxes lowered. The letters, which were made to look like official government documents, stated that due to the drop in property values, residents needed to file for a reassessment of their property taxes. The letters included a purported adjusted assessment and the amount of projected tax savings resulting from an appeal, provided the property owner signed an authorization and included a check for the company's fee. Similar letters were also sent to residents in California in late 2009. Even though these property tax scams occurred in different states, it is important to be aware of them because this scam could start occurring here in Georgia.
There are various ways to discover whether a business or person is "legitimate". If a corporation sent the letter to you, you can look up its name on the Secretary of State's website to see if it is an actual legal entity. However, just because the corporation is a legal entity is no guarantee that it employs truthful and fair business practices. If you think you may be interested in its services, you should ask the business to provide references from past customers and, if the company claims to be a member of any professional organizations, you may want to contact the organizations to see whether the business is in good standing. You can also visit the Better Business Bureau's website to see if anyone has submitted any complaints about the business.
Two additional things to remember. First, avoid paying money to a business up front. There are many reputable companies who will not charge you in advance. In fact, some companies calculate their fee as a percentage of your first year's tax savings, while others will bill you on an hourly basis and submit a detailed bill for the actual hours they have worked to pursue the appeal. Second, nevercontract with a company that guarantees a tax reduction; no legitimate company would make such a promise.
If you are not confident that the business or person is legitimate, you may prefer to appeal your property taxes yourself. In fact, even if the letter you received was from a legitimate business, appealing your property taxes yourself could cost substantially less than hiring someone to do it for you and should not take too much of your time. For information on how to appeal a property tax assessment, go to the Georgia Department of Revenue's website.