By: Christina J. Johns

Two years ago when we bought our house in Tallahassee, I received an official looking letter from the State Recording Service. In the letter, I was told that I needed to send them $35.00 to have my homestead exemption filed. I promptly did what I was told, sent them $35.00 and completely forgot about it.

A year later, we got our tax bill. It was enormous, so enormous that we began considering moving out of Leon County. As I perused the little form in disbelief, I noticed that the box entitled Exemptions had the number 0 in it. "Strange." I thought, "unless they don't consider a homeowner's exemption as a real exemption. But, what else could it be?

I put it in the pile (I don't have files in my office, I have piles) to take care of, and of course it got buried underneath hundreds of other things that needed to be taken care of, like suing the builder of our house for refusing to do work that he had agreed to in writing, and phoning the company that changed our long distance service from MCI to their WillTell, without so much as bothering to ask me.

Months later, I noticed a small article in the Tallahassee Democrat. It seems that a company out of Arizona calling itself the State Recording Service had bilked a lot of citizens of the state of Florida out of a lot of money. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. "That's us." I said to myself.

Sure enough within the week, a letter came from the real state telling me that they had discovered that I had been the victim of a scam in which not only did this despicable company take my $35.00, they never filed a homestead exemption for me. So we paid hundreds if not thousands of dollars of taxes we needn't have paid.

I phoned the office listed on the letterhead. "What are we going to do about this?" I enquired wearily.

"Well," the very pleasant man on the other end of the telephone replied. "We're trying. We're negotiating with them to get the money back."

"Negotiating?" I said. Why didn't this surprise me?

"Negotiating." He affirmed. "We're afraid that if we sue them, they'll just..."

"...go out of business." I finished for him.

"Exactly." He confirmed.

I put my head in my hands. "And are we talking about recovering the $35.00 or the taxes we paid unnecessarily."

"We're trying to negotiate for both, but you know these companies. They could just shut up business, disappear, and open another business tomorrow under a different name."

"I know it well." I said, having taught students about corporate and white collar crime for too many years to mention.

The man continued. "We asked them for a list of all the people they contacted and they provided us one, but it wasn't until we demanded boxes of documentation that we really realized the extent of the victimization. That's how your name was found. It wasn't on the main computer list. I was going through every piece of paper in a box and found your name.

"Great." I said. "I appreciate the effort."

I hung up the telephone feeling almost certain that we would never see a cent of money returned. It wasn't until later that I began to wonder why the State of Florida itself didn't refund our incorrectly paid taxes. After all, they were the ones that had our money. The $35.00 wasn't anything compared to the amount of taxes we paid, and the state of Florida wasn't owed those taxes. They should return them.

I learned several things I already knew from this unfortunate experience. 1) Never take anything for granted, 2) check out everything, and 3) once the state gets its paws on your money, they'll never give it back.

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