By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"The point is, if you ever need one, you'll know it, and you've got plenty of time," says Tina Furlow, a prosecutor in the Florida Attorney General Office's economic-crimes unit.
The direct-mail solicitations Crane sends out offer to prepare a Designation of Homestead form--essentially, a few minutes of typing--for $25, the maximum fee it's legal to charge in most states for such a simple service. For another $22, State Recording Service will then actually file the completed form with the appropriate county recorder's office. Otherwise, the customer just gets it back in the mail. Which is probably when most of them realize they've been had.
Offering an overpriced, largely unnecessary service isn't illegal, though. It's the way Crane offers it that gets him in trouble. The mailers never explicitly claim to be a notice from the government. That's blatantly illegal. Crane prefers to tiptoe around the law, and he's meticulously crafty.
For example, a mailer Crane used in Arizona a couple years ago included a cover sheet that read, in blaring type: "NOTICE. Our records do not indicate that a Homestead form has been filed on your property. YOU MUST FILE for an exempt homestead according to A.R.S. 33-1101, et. seq., as per amended laws for equity protection. READ AND COMPLETE THE ENCLOSED FORM."
Which, deconstructed, is a total crock of shit. But how many new homeowners stop to figure that out, and how many--deluged with legitimate paperwork that comes in the mail--just fill out the stupid form and fire off a $25 check? Crane's profit margin lies in the difference.
Currently, S.R.S. uses similar mailers to solicit customers in four states--Utah, Nevada, Florida and Texas. Crane stays out of Arizona now. Two years ago, the AZ Attorney General's Office went after him, and, to cool things out, Crane signed a civil injunction in which he admitted breaking the law, agreed to pay back $8,000 to unhappy customers, and swore never to solicit homestead customers in this state again. The year before he signed the Arizona injunction, Crane made similar pacts with the attorneys general of Florida and Texas, in which he agreed to cough up some dough--$76,000 in Florida, $15,194 in Texas--and promised to be a good boy.
Crane has no criminal record in either of those states or Arizona. He deliberately operates in legal gray areas, and so far has dodged prosecution by cutting deals with typically understaffed white-collar-crime divisions, for whom a symbolic admission of guilt and a fat restitution order look good on paper, and free up prosecutors to work on criminal cases that are more of a lock.
However, unlike the deal Crane cut in his own state, the language of the Texas and Florida judgments left him some wiggle room. They did not specifically prohibit Crane from mailing any homestead solicitations to those states, only ones that are "misleading" and "deceptive," and fail to include "clear and prominent" disclaimers establishing two things: 1) State Recording Service is not a government agency, and 2) Filing for homestead is not required by law.
But hey--clear and prominent are relative terms. Debatable. Open to interpretation. Ditto "false" and "misleading." After he signed those deals with Florida and Texas, Crane waited about a year, then went back in with a modified mailer. The new generation includes no screaming "YOU MUST FILE" cover sheets, and a printed line on the back of the envelope states "This is a solicitation."
Other new touches, however, include the bold phrase "EQUAL OPPORTUNITY EMPLOYER," and an excerpt of ominous legalese from a federal law against mail tampering. The envelopes are postmarked Phoenix, but the return address is a mail drop near the state capitol building in Tallahassee, Florida, or Austin, Texas.
Inside is a one-page solicitation that looks more like a tax return than an advertisment. It's titled "State Recording Service Designation of Homestead Request Form." There are two information bulletins at the top. One assigns the recipient an eight-digit "S.R.S. Record Number." The other reads "Our Records Show Filing: None." There are two more disclaimers: One, "Not affiliated with any government agency," is printed directly above the return address, in the same font. The other--"Florida law does not require homeowners to file or record a Designation of Homestead"--is buried in the fine print at the bottom.
Sonya Sanchez, spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general, says her office reopened its investigation of State Recording Service this summer, but no legal action is pending. "We're looking into it, but the lines are blurry," she said. Florida's attorney general is feeling more in focus. In May, Tina Furlow filed a motion to find Crane in contempt of court for violating the 1994 injunction. The case is scheduled to go before a judge in January.
Crane refused to speak to me at length about the Florida case and S.R.S.' history of legal problems, except to insist his lawyers had carefully gone over his new mailers to make sure they satisfied the terms of his agreement with the state. He also said all unhappy customers receive a full refund. "Nobody has to sue us," he said. "If anyone has a problem, they can always call me and I'll take care of them."