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posted: 4/5/2013 4:46 AM

Debunking some common real estate 'urban legends'

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Dog-eating spiders, federal subsidies to pay utility bills and a fat payout for a dorm-room accident make for good stories. None of them are true.

Q. I received an email last week saying there's some sort of new "mutant" spider invading homes in the United States and Mexico that's eating dogs, cats and even small children. The photo that accompanied the email showed a spider on a wall that's about the size of a large octopus, and that one homeowner had to shoot the thing several times to kill it. Are these spiders for real?

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A. No, these "mutant" arachnids -- referred to in the email that's quickly circulating the globe as the "Angolan Witch Spider" -- simply doesn't exist, according to entomologists as well as a representative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With April Fools' Day each year, there's a bunch of theses stories circulating, and it's a good time to debunk some real-estate-related myths.

Internet site snopes.com, which specializes in exposing urban myths or proving a tale's validity, even tracked down the artist who used some basic digital fakery to create the photo and start the rumor. He essentially took a picture of a relatively harmless wolf spider, enlarged it several times over with the help of a computer software program, and then pasted the oversized bug over a picture of the exterior wall of a house.

It's a pretty scary photo, but it's totally bogus. Readers who haven't seen the picture, or read the related story about the hoax, can view both by visiting www.snopes.com/photos/bugs/witchspider.asp on the Internet.

Q. Is it true some college kid in Idaho won $1 million from his university because he got hurt when he fell out of a third-story window in his dorm room while "mooning" some of his buddies? Supposedly, the kid won the suit because the school hadn't warned him of the dangers of living on the upper floors of a building and sticking his naked derrière out of a window.

A. It's true that such a lawsuit was filed. But (thankfully) the, er, "embar-assed" student didn't get a dime.

Jason Wilkins sued the University of Idaho in the rural town of Moscow after he pulled down his pants and fell backward onto the ground while showing his assets to friends down below. He sued the university to pay $940,000 for his injuries.

The judge denied his claim, in part because court testimony showed the plaintiff took the time to climb up onto a 3-foot-tall heater to bear his buns before tumbling out of the window.

Q. Some company that I have never heard of before left a flier on my front door, stating that the recent budget deal between Congress and President Barack Obama offers all homeowners a $1,000 payment to cover their energy bills. Is this true? If so, how do I apply?

A. No, it's not true -- there is no such federal utility-bill payment available. I wrote about a similar scam last summer, when temperatures soared beyond normal, but it's making a comeback because this winter was unusually cold and spring has gotten off to a chilly start in many parts of the country.

According to officials at both the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau, the con artists show up at homes, call or email to make their fraudulent sales pitch, claiming that the feds will pay up to $1,000 of the owners' utility charges or even credit-card bills.

In many cases, victims are given phony bank account and routing numbers to use when paying their bills online -- but only after "registering" their Social Security number and other personal information with the scamster. Others are told simply to use their SSN or their credit card as their account number.

Either way, the homeowner is led to believe their bills have been paid after they have supplied the information and that the reimbursement has been processed. Instead, all they get is a stolen identity, late fees for the unpaid bills and sometimes even an interruption in their utility service.

There are several ways to avoid this and other types of scams. First and foremost is to never provide your Social Security number, credit-card information and the like over the phone or at your home unless you initiated the contact yourself and are confident with whom you are speaking, the BBB says.

Be wary if you receive a call from someone claiming to represent your utility company or another institution you deal with and then are pressured to provide personal information or to make an immediate payment. Instead, hang up the phone and call the company's customer-service number that appears on your official monthly statement.

Never allow anyone into your home to check electrical wiring, gas leaks or the like unless you have scheduled an appointment or have reported a problem. Also, ask utility employees for proper identification before opening the door.

Contact your bank and utility company immediately if you think you may have already fallen for this scam. Also contact the three national credit bureaus -- Experian, TransUnion and Equifax -- and have a notation placed in your file to limit the potential damage to your credit score.

Real estate trivia: State law in Oregon makes it illegal to shoot or harass a Sasquatch, commonly called "Bigfoot," even if it wanders onto a homeowner's property. No such beast has been proven to exist.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

© 2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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