DennisBeaverOctober 18, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Often we are asked, “How do you get the material for your articles?” Generally, it’s from readers who send in questions, asking for help, and on occasion, alert us to “odd” things they’ve discovered.

That’s what happened one Saturday morning in late June. I was both phoned and sent e-mails by readers who came across an Action Line article — produced by the Better Business Bureau — which caused them to see red. Their observations formed the basis of a “You and the Law” column published earlier this year. If you didn’t catch it, here is a summary:

A restaurant ran a “2-for-1 Senior Special,” yet refused the discount to an elderly couple. While clearly a violation of California False Advertising and Unfair Competition laws, the BBB writer amazingly concluded that what happened was “not illegal.”

That statement was the equivalent of saying, “If you’re misled in a similar situation, tough! Nobody can do anything about it. Forget it.”

Was this writer an attorney? Was a lawyer consulted before writing the article? I asked, and was told, “No.” And, just who is the writer? Well, it’s Vickie Sanders, “assistant director of business services” at the Fresno-based Better Business Bureau of Central California. She gave me the following justification for misleading the public: “We don’t give legal advice, and besides, I never said that I was a lawyer.”

While very few attorneys choose to buy a BBB membership, there are some who I am sure would be happy to provide a legal opinion before incorrect and damaging advice is handed out. The Better Business Bureau owes the public much more than a “Well, I never said that I was a lawyer.”

But they’ve just done it again.

‘Keep on paying the rent!’

California is in the middle of a foreclosure nightmare. Tenants who pay their rent on time have been evicted because the mortgage fell into default. Often, there are early signs the owner is in serious financial trouble, collecting rent but not paying the mortgage.

So, let’s say you’re a tenant, and the following occurs:

Gardening services and garbage collection suddenly stop;

The landlord has changed addresses and phone numbers three times this year, and;

You’re afraid mortgage payments aren’t being made.

Should you continue paying rent? What should a tenant in that position do?

“Those things are the classic signs of a landlord in deep financial trouble and the rental likely in default. At that stage, don’t just keep on paying rent! You need to check public records to see if the property is in default, or, worse yet, has already been foreclosed. It may be, and you might not have received any of the legally required notices. Things do slip through the cracks,” San Francisco attorney Dean Preston of Tenants Together told me. I had read to him another Action Line article that appeared on Sept. 19, written by Ms. Sanders and called to my attention by the same readers.

This time, her advice could cost innocent renters thousands of dollars, sending their rent checks to landlords who are ripping them off by not paying the mortgage, leading to being evicted. Incredibly, she wrote:

“I am not an attorney, but the one thing I do know is you should continue paying rent to the owner of the property until you are otherwise notified by the mortgage holder or a new owner.”

“Sure, a landlord — especially if in default or has been foreclosed against — will hope the tenant keeps on paying the rent. This is called rent skimming, accepting rent with no intention at all of paying the mortgage,” Southern California real estate broker Daniel Cook of Equity One told me.

Cook also saw that article and “realized the writer left out terribly important advice to tenants in that situation. The fact of the article being under the Better Business Bureau name was surprising. That article failed to provide adequate advice to tenants,” he said.

‘Well, I asked a bank!’

I phoned Sanders. As before, she had not spoken to an attorney prior to writing the article. “I did speak with a banker,” she confidently told me, adding, once again, “but I am not giving legal advice.”

Any organization that seeks respect from the public, passes itself off as the consumer’s friend, talks about good business practices and wants our trust, should be a good example of its own message.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.