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Common name sets off a not-so-common search

The L.A. County tax collector is looking for a 'D. Smith' who hasn't paid the levy on a vacant lot in 22 years and now owes $33,534. So far, a mass mailing to D. Smiths hasn't done the trick.

January 06, 2010|By Bob Pool
  • Shawn Wells walks by the vacant lot with the elusive owner.
Shawn Wells walks by the vacant lot with the elusive owner. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

In a world where identity theft is a major issue, authorities in Los Angeles have a name they can't get anyone to take.

Somebody named "D. Smith" owns a 5,706-square-foot lot in South Los Angeles, and workers in the county tax collector's office want to know if he or she wants to sell it.

Officials have spent 22 years hunting for the owner in order to collect property taxes on the vacant property that have gone unpaid since 1980.

As the decades have gone by without the $275 or so yearly tax assessment being paid, the balance has grown and grown.

When annual penalties and costs are added in, the current tax bill for the skinny lot is a fat $33,534.

Now that the county's budget crisis is sending authorities scavenging for cash, officials have decided it's time for Smith to pay up or forfeit the land for sale. They say they have found a buyer who will take it off Smith's hands.

But first, officials have made one final attempt to find Smith.

The tax collector mailed certified letters at $5.71 each to every D. Smith it could find in the county. The letters explained how a tax bill that started out at $263.65 in 1980 had grown. It gave a December deadline to pay.

Among those receiving the certified letters was Times computer-based reporting expert Doug Smith. He was not the right "D. Smith," but he became more curious when he received two more of the tax collector's $5.71 certified letters.

Doing his own computer search, Smith discovered that there are 10,970 Smiths listed on the county's tax roll. His computer calculated that the postage alone would have cost the county nearly $62,639 if each Smith had received just one of the certified letters.

"We made a superhuman effort," said John McKinney, manager of the tax collector's Secured Property Tax Division, which mailed the letters.

A check of his office's records showed that 1,180 of the certified letters were mailed to D. Smiths in the county, according to McKinney.

"If we sent out 11,000, I'd be in so much trouble," he said with a laugh.

Initially, the county used commercial databases to hunt down the right Smith. Unfortunately, that search produced every D. Smith in the United States -- thousands of them. Officials then turned to title searches and the county's tax rolls to narrow the field.

"We would rather overdo it than underdo it," McKinney said. "We sold a house a few years ago with somebody in it. It made the national press."

That 2002 case involved an 85-year-old man who was unaware that he was $546 behind on his taxes. A notice of the delinquency on his Inglewood condominium had been sent by mistake to the home's previous owner. And when the man paid his annual taxes each year, he had failed to spot a small box on the bill that showed the additional delinquent amount.

Even though the county sought later to help the man, the auction sale of the condominium was deemed to be legal and the man was forced to move into housing for veterans.

Of the 2.5 million parcels on the county tax rolls, owners of about 2,800 of them are behind on their taxes, according to officials. Half of those will pay their overdue bills and redeem the property before the county auctions it off.

The price of the certified mail postage and other costs associated with the Smith search will be tacked onto the selling price of the West 78th Street lot and be paid by a 10-year-old nonprofit group that hopes to acquire it.

The Los Angeles-based Win Project intends to build a home on the property in the Vermont Knolls neighborhood and sell it at an affordable price to a low-income family, said Regina Young, a project director.

The lot will cost the group the amount of the back taxes, the expense of the mailing and other fees associated with the transaction. The project will then spend about $160,000 on construction before selling the completed home for about $190,000, Young said.

Since it is the most common last name in America, the odds could be about 1 in 100 that the new owner will be named Smith.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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