For 84-year-old Bill Brough of South Barrington, what sounded like a foolproof offer to recover overpaid taxes ultimately led to a threat of losing his home.
Brough has been a resident of the village he helped found for its entire 50-year history, and he jokes that he may own the smallest house in the affluent community that sprouted up around it.
Though reasonably skeptical of offers that seem too good to be true, Bough saw no possibility of hidden danger in an offer from Chicago-based Kensington Research & Recovery to collect money owed him by the government in return for a 50 percent cut.
As Brough was unaware of any money owed him, it sounded like a zero-risk proposition. He would owe no money if no money was found.
True to its word, the firm found $4,064.30 apparently owed Brough by the Cook County treasurer's office for overpayment of 2002 property taxes.
As per the contract Brough had signed, Kensington took $2,032.15 and Brough received a check for the same amount on Oct. 27.
Just days later, Brough wrote a letter to Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas complaining that a refund seven years overdue came with no additional interest, though if taxpayers make overdue payments to the treasurer's office, they carry significant interest penalties.
That's when he learned of the perils that can lurk in the convoluted world of Illinois government.
Brough received a letter from the treasurer's office on Dec. 18 saying that its payment had been an error and that he was responsible for repayment of the full amount by Sunday, Jan. 17.
In other words, he suddenly owed twice as much as he'd actually received.
"If reimbursement is not received within 30 days, your 2002 taxes will remain unpaid, be subject to accrual of late fees and may be offered at our next tax sale," the letter reads. "In addition, if you fail to respond to this notice within 30 days, all actions available to us under the law to recover these funds will be taken."
"It really shook me to get that letter from her," he said.
Following inquiries by the Daily Herald, the Cook County treasurer's office looked into the matter.
Spokesman Bob Benjamin said Brough had received a rebate check for the same amount - minus the accrued interest - in 2004. He added that it was a communication lapse among the treasurer's office, Cook County assessor and Illinois Property Tax Appeals Board that had led Kensington to accidentally identify the refund as unpaid and for a new check to then be cut.
"It shouldn't have gone out," Benjamin said. "We caught it post-facto."
The treasurer's office talked with both Brough and Kensington Research & Recovery and each party agreed to return the amount received, resolving the matter.
Brough said he has no memory of receiving the earlier rebate, but he's grudgingly satisfied with the outcome.
He insisted though on getting a letter from the treasurer's office that clearly indemnified him from any further legal action in exchange for his repayment. He wasn't taking any more chances on the county's paperwork.
Benjamin said that a new system was developed in 2006 to better track such matters, but Brough's original rebate predated that system.
Frank DalBello, director of Kensington Research & Recovery, said his firm searches through public records and is able to help thousands of taxpayers every year by finding amounts owed that have gone unpaid. He characterized the situation Brough landed in as unique.
"This may be the first time I've ever seen that happen," DalBello said.
Benjamin agreed problems are rare in such transactions, saying the treasurer's office interacts with many companies that do the same work as Kensington.
"This is a very unusual case," Benjamin said.