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Offices target fraud
Homestead exemptions focus of new crackdown
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Forsyth County News



The Forsyth County Tax Assessor’s and Tax Commissioner’s offices are working on a plan to attack fraud.

As early as September, a crackdown could begin on residents trying to claim more than one homestead exemption.

The resulting penalties, interest and back taxes could bring in as much as $3 million, said Mary Kirkpatrick, Forsyth’s chief tax appraiser.

Kirkpatrick got the go-ahead Thursday from the Board of Tax Assessors to pursue using Affiliated Computer Services Inc. to handle the fraud search.

At no cost to the county, the company would produce a complete list of potential dual homestead exemption enrollments using public records.

Those records would include, among others, voter registration forms, marriage licenses and name changes.

Kirkpatrick said for privacy, only names would be provided to the company, not other information such as Social Security numbers.

While there is no cost for the list, the company would receive a 30 percent commission of any money collected as a result.

"They don’t get paid unless we get paid," Kirkpatrick told the board.

"The fraud exists. It’s hard as the devil to find. We don’t have good methods to really research this and the availability to some of the data that this company has."

The county does, on occasion, catch homestead exemption fraud. It’s rare, but the reward can be great.

"We just found one on the north end of the county, and the revenue recovered on that one was $62,000 where somebody had been claiming two homesteads right nextto each other — one in the wife’s name and one in the husband’s name," Kirkpatrick said.

"With back years and penalties and interest, the penalty is stiff. When you get caught … you pay back twice what you would have owed."

Tax Commissioner Matthew Ledbetter said his office would be responsible for billing those who commit homestead fraud.

He said he was impressed with the company’s ability to search nationwide, as well as how it can tap into records to which the county doesn’t have access.

Potential collections of $3 million would just be for the first year. From that point, Ledbetter said, "the fraud will decline."

"We’d be using [the company] going forward as a technique to prevent more fraud from happening," he said. "We think it could be a big impact because we don’t have to pay for it and [taxpayers] don’t have to pay for it. The actual people that broke the rule would have to pay for it."

One key element of the search is defining the difference between fraud and unintentional rule breaking, Kirkpatrick said.

"Fraud has got to have the intent behind it," she said. "They’re going to find everything from where grandma died last year and there’s still an exemption on it. That’s not necessarily fraud. That’s just where someone has not thought to come in and take it off.

"We will provide the ground rules for what we consider fraud and what we don’t."

The assessor’s office will pursue clear definitions of what constitutes fraud prior to taking any action against homeowners.

Kirkpatrick and Ledbetter will also work together on finding a standard billing method.

There’s one county that billed violators for a 30 percent investigation fee on top of the fines, fees and back taxes owed, Kirkpatrick said. That way, it could collect 100 percent of money owed.

It’s something Forsyth could consider, she said.

Like regular property taxes, those who refuse to pay fines could end up with a lien on their property.

"So they’re either going to pay [fees] or they’re going to lose [their home]," Kirkpatrick said.

Ledbetter said the process is designed to punish only those who "blatantly, intentionally are defrauding the county of tax dollars."

"We want it to be fair," he said. "… We want them to pay every dime that is due, but we don’t want them to pay one more dime than is owed."