Will The Real D. Smith Come Forward?

In Los Angeles, someone named D. Smith owns a parcel of vacant land — and owes 30 years of property taxes on it, too. But county officials are struggling with a basic problem: How do you find someone with such a common name? Host Guy Raz tells the story of a recent mass mailing to more than a thousand D. Smiths, asking the real D. Smith to please step forward.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Here's a story about just how hard it can be to find people, let alone count them. It begins with a vacant lot in Los Angeles County. No one's paid the property taxes on it since at least 1980. And the owner?

Ms. DONNA DOSS (Assistant Treasurer and Tax Collector, Los Angeles County): D. Smith. That's all I can tell you. It belongs to a D. Smith.

RAZ: That's Donna Doss. She's in charge of property tax collections for L.A. County. Her office recently sent out more than 1,100 certified letters to D. Smiths all over L.A. County, which caused all kinds of confusion.

Mr. DWAYNE SMITH(ph): My name is Dwayne Smith. I'm a security officer.

Ms. DANA SMITH(ph): My name is Dana Smith. I'm an accountant.

Ms. DOLORES SMITH(ph): My name is Dolores Smith. I'm a foster parent. And I do not own that piece of property in Los Angeles.

Mr. DOUG SMITH (Database Editor, Los Angeles Times): I opened it, and my first reaction was that it was a bill for $33,000.

RAZ: That's Doug Smith, a database editor for the Los Angeles Times. He also got the letter three times. So he used his computer analysis skills to help us track down his brethren. And it turns out many D. Smiths share something important in common: that split-second fear they experience when confronted with a bill for $33,000.

Ms. SMITH: And I said, oh, no, what are they doing?

RAZ: That was Dolores Smith's reaction when she opened the letter. Now, in fairness, the law requires county officials to make a good faith effort to find the owners of vacant properties before those lots are sold at auction.

Tax collector Donna Doss suspects the real D. Smith has probably died. So we wondered whether the mass mailing yielded any clues.

Ms. DOSS: No, other than if you find D. Smith, let us know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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