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Mortgage Firm Ordered to Cease and Desist Deceptive Ad

Homefield Financial sent mail piece that appeared to be Calif. refund check

April 28, 2004

By PATRICK CROWLEY


The mailing that arrived in the homes of 50,000 California residents sure looked like a $1,000 check.

Even the printing gave the appearance that it might be a state tax return so many workers are receiving this time of year.

But the faux check turned out to be a real ad -- one that California state regulators have clamped down on.

Homefield Financial Mortgage Loan Co. of Irvine, Calif., has been issued a cease and desist order and told by the California Controller's Office to stop mailing the deceptive ad, Garin Casaleggio, a spokesman for Controller Steve Wesley, said in a phone interview.

"The setup of the envelope appears to intentionally duplicate the appearance of envelopes issued from the State Controller's Office," according to a letter the controller mailed to the company. "Additionally, the document's 'certificate' number, fund number information, identification number, signature block, color of the document, as well as the position of the seal, are all designed in a manner similar to warrants issued by the State Controller for income tax refunds and other purposes.

"Given the deceptive nature of your company's solicitation and given the fact that your mailing does not comply with the law, you are requested to cease and desist from mailing any further ... solicitations," the state said in the letter.

The California Dept. of Corporations, which holds Homefield Financial's license to do business in the state, has also told the company to no longer send the ads to homeowners, department Shad Balch confirmed in a phone interview.

"We issued a stop order to cease doing this immediately," Balch said. "We were concerned that the advertising they were sending out clearly gave an appearance that it was a check issued from the state controller's office here in California. That's a violation of a few different laws (regarding) ...false advertising."

The company has complied and said it will no longer use the ad, Balch said.

Homefield Financial management could not be reached to comment, but the company did issue a statement to Sacramento television station KCRA.

"It was a limited test piece," the company told the station, according to a story posted on the KCRA Web site. "We realize this was not a good idea and it was discontinued voluntarily, prior to any negative reaction. We would not intentionally attempt to mislead customers. We apologize for any misunderstanding."

When homeowners called the company after receiving the ad, they received a sales pitch, regulators said.

Casaleggio said the controller's office, which signs all tax refunds in California, became involved after receiving some "random complaints" and a faxed copy of the ad. It then referred the ad to the office's lawyers.

"The way it is set up it is similar to a tax refund," Casaleggio said.

Under California law any document that is made to look like a state document or a check "needs to say, 'this is not a government document'. No way was this endorsed by a government entity," he said.

"Homefield has sent us a letter ... that they are complying," Casaleggio said.

Such ads used to be more common in California, but the comptroller's office was successful in getting legislation passed in 1997 that cracked down on deceptive ads.

Since then "such solicitations ... are not as common," Casaleggio said.


Patrick Crowley is a political reporter and columnist and former business writer for The Cincinnati Enquirer. Email Patrick at: [email protected]
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