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Seen At 11: Don't Fall Victim To The 'Mail Trap'

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Here's a new warning about another scam that could show up on your door step.

An official looking letter arrives in the mail saying you owe fees -- and if you don't pay up, you may face jail time.

Thousands of fearful people are handing over their money, but as CBS 2's Kristine Johnson uncovered, it's just one big "mail trap."

Tony Diamond gets a lot of junk mail, but he said one letter in particular really stood out.

"It has all kinds of penalties and fines quoted on the envelope, looks real official," Diamond said.

The letter included details about Diamond's property and demanded $83 for a copy of the deed to his home. If he didn't act soon, the letter said, he would face penalties, including a $2,000 fine and five years' imprisonment.

"It did look like it was from the tax people," Diamond said.

A deed is a legal document used to prove ownership of a property, and is necessary if you ever want to sell.

"It does look official," property assessor Marc Tonnesen told Johnson.

However, Tonnesen said these letters are anything but official. They're actually a scam targeting senior citizens across the country.

"We have companies that buy our data. For the most part it is public record," Tonnesen said.

Here's how it works: the scammers, posing as legitimate companies, purchase homeowner records from local property assessor offices, records that are available to anyone who provides an address, and pays next to nothing.

"A two-page grant deed is going to cost you $8," Tonnesen said.

They then try to strong-arm unsuspecting homeowners to buy these records at a greatly inflated price -- as much as a 550 percent markup.

Believe it or not, what these companies are doing is not illegal. However, experts say homeowners can easily obtain these documents themselves, or may even already have a copy given to them at the time they purchased their property.

The Better Business Bureau is the public warning to be on the look-out for this and suggests if you have a question about whether a mailing is from a government agency or a private company, call and ask.

Diamond said he caught on that the letter was a scam and is hoping others do the same.

"I'd hate to see someone else that falls for it," Diamond said.

You have little recourse if you overpay for a copy of your documents, but you can file a complaint with your state attorney general's office or consumer protection agency.

The following are useful links:

N.Y. Attorney General complaint form

N.J. Attorney General complaint form

Better Business Bureau complaint form

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