Angle Heart

Scottsdale's Greg Crane calls himself an entrepreneur. Prosecutors in three states call him a grifter. But he's such a young man.

Inside the foyer of Greg Crane's north Scottsdale office suite, there's a niche in the wall facing the front door. It holds a small, fake plant and a proverb inside a clear, plastic frame. Every weekday morning, one of the women who works for Crane replaces the proverb from the day before with a new one, printed on a different color of paper, from a stack put together by Crane's wife. The day I met Crane, the paper was hot pink, and the saying read: "Your true character is revealed by what you do when no one's watching."

Which is pretty damn ironic, given what Greg Crane does for a living. Crane's a sharpie. Has been for years. Homeboy's got more angles than a pentagram. It used to be luxury-home construction, but then his partner went to jail and the state yanked his contractor's license because too many of his customers never got what they paid for, and Crane moved on, to greener pastures with new sheep.

Now, as a sideline, Crane wins promotional contests by outsmarting the rules. His bread and butter, though, is direct-mail marketing. Deceptive direct-mail marketing, designed to fool people into thinking the flier in their hands is a notice from the government, instead of a solicitation from Greg Crane. It's a highly profitable advertising strategy, but it tends to bring down the heat. Since 1994, Crane has admitted to violating consumer-protection laws in three states. He's also been slapped with more than $100,000 in restitution and civil penalties, which he treats like a cost of doing business.

The Texas Attorney General's Office just reopened an investigation of Crane, and the Florida attorney general is taking him to court for the second time. This summer, he got mauled by negative press in both states, which evidently led Crane to a new angle--putting journalists on his payroll.

In mid-September, I got a message on my voice mail at work from one of Crane's assistants. She sounded like a telemarketer reading from a script. "Hi, my name is Jo Ann and I work for a local document-preparation company called State Recording Service. We'd like to know if you're interested in making a little extra money doing freelance reporting." She left a number, and I called back. Jo Ann told me her company--S.R.S.--was based in Scottsdale but did business in several states. "We've been getting some bad press lately, and we're looking for people to help us with good PR." I asked her for specifics, and she told me to call Greg Crane--"the boss around here"--for an interview.

Crane's phone manner was joyous, as if there were nothing in the whole, wide world he'd rather do than talk to me. He asked me a few questions about my education and job history, then said he wanted to meet me in person to explain what he needed. I went to his office later that day. Crane is 33, but looks young for his age. He's tall, trim and exceptionally clean-cut. When I met him, he was dressed in his usual business attire--dark slacks and a long-sleeve Ralph Lauren dress shirt that, like the proverb in his lobby, changes color every day. Crane is aggressively upbeat, but very polite and friendly. He makes a textbook good first impression.

"So," he said. "Can you take something that's pretty boring and make it interesting?" I said sure. "That's great!" he said. Then he laid out a proposition: He offered me $150 to write three one-page stories about his business, with the promise of more work if they turned out well. The stories I wrote, he said, would be submitted to thousands of newspapers across the country. "We like to send out a lot of positive, interesting stories about our business," he said. "The more the merrier." I said I still didn't know what kind of business he was in.

"We're in the business of protecting people's homes," he said. Which is one way to put it. And Crane makes a lot of money putting things just the right way.

Check it out:
The legal documents State Recording Service specializes in preparing are Designation of Homestead forms. In this context, "homestead" has nothing to do with rugged pioneers settling the frontier. It just means a house that's owner-occupied. Legally, the issue comes into play when a creditor tries to force the sale of a residential property. If that house is also the owner's homestead--the place he eats and sleeps--it's protected in most cases, including bankruptcy and civil judgments.

In most states, designation of homestead is automatic upon the purchase of a new home. In states where it's not--Texas, Florida, Nevada, Utah and California--homestead-designation forms are widely available in stationery stores and copy shops. The forms are one page long, easy to fill out, and cost about a dollar. The price of filing a Designation of Homestead is also nominal--six to 10 bucks. Most people never file one, however, because there's no point unless you're in serious financial trouble. Even then, you have until the very day of a forced sale to file a homestead form.

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