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$60M lawsuit alleges Zillow listings can be hijacked

(REAL ESTATE) Zillow has long been a data powerhouse, but a lawsuit about a $150M listing offers a look into listings claims.

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Once called “the most expensive house in the US,” 924 Bel Air Road is a California jewel, crafted by famed homebuilder, Bruce Makowsky. And it’s currently on the market for a cool $150 million.

The only problem is, that according to Zillow, on February 04, it sold for $110M, there was an open house on February 08 that never existed, and although the errors were corrected by Zillow, the listing again was marked as sold on February 09 for $90.5M, corrected, and sold again the very next day for $94.3M.

The property owner is currently suing Zillow for $60M, alleging that the company “admittedly published false information, through its own website,” and “is disseminating misleading, false, and inaccurate information that has a large prominence because of Zillow’s market power.”

Further, the Plaintiff offers email evidence wherein Zillow acknowledged that they were “aware of the issue,” complaining that the false data was not immediately removed, rather took a week.

How did all of this happen?

A false claim of ownership.

Initially, a Chinese IP address with the email 910028863@qq.com (and a phone number whose area code does not exist) claimed the listing, and although Zillow requires a verification process, the lawsuit alleges that anyone that attempts to claim the property enough times can anticipate the questions “and be able to figure out what information they need to verify their identity.”

Later, on February 14th, “andersgraff@icloud.com” attempted to alter sales information. It is not immediately clear to us if this email address is associated with the previous claim, faked, or if multiple individuals have attempted to claim the address. Zillow’s policy is to notify the original party claiming a listing if there is a dispute, so “andersgraff” could be the original user’s second attempt. Or not.

They allege that Zillow does not have any safeguards in place, and that they “knew or should have known that trolls, criminals, and persons illegally claiming ownership of property and falsely contending it was sold that could easily bypass their standard questions to ‘claim a home’ and post false information.”

“It was reasonably foreseeable that this would happen,” the lawsuit alleges. “Yet, the Defendants have done nothing about it and simply do not care about the homeowners they hurt in the process.”

That last bit is a little floral, but their point is taken.

So what is the solution here?

Zillow has always allowed homeowners to claim their address, update information to improve accuracy of the data, and correct any information; it has been part of the differentiator between them and their competitors.

Zillow Corporate Counsel, Kim Nielsen emailed the Plaintiff’s attorney, Ronald Richards on February 14th, “Unfortunately, if someone is able to provide responses to the verification questions, they are able to claim the home. As I mentioned, we do not manually check each time someone attempts to claim a home. One suggestion would be for the listing agent or company selling the home to go in and claim the home until it is sold. This will at least prevent someone else from being able to fraudulently claim ownership of the home.”

Couldn’t that in itself be seen as a fraudulent claim of ownership if the agent claims the property as their own?

This lawsuit highlights a massive challenge to Zillow’s data, revealing that it can, in fact, be manipulated. With a fake email address and Chinese IP address. Can any user game the system to impact local markets?

For the lawsuit, read here; for the exhibits, read here.

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Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius and has been named in the Inman 100 Most Influential Real Estate Leaders several times, co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

Real Estate Corporate

Zillow patent grab advances, now seeking patent on automated rental rates

(REAL ESTATE) Zillow has been applying for utility patents left and right, now adding rental Zestimates to the list.

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We recently reported that Zillow is scooping up patents faster than developers are bulldozing Central Austin single family homes to build two modern half-million dollar homes in their place.  And since then, Zillow’s showing no signs of slowing down.

The online real estate search giant applied for another utility patent for automatically determining market rental rate index for properties .

And what is that you ask?

This application patents Zillow’s ability to determine and index the market rental rate for homes in a geographic area. By accessing the current market rental rate of every home in each area, they can automatically compare them to similar homes to obtain aggregate results.

This functionality isn’t new. Other sites use similar functions to help renters find homes in the areas of their choosing at prices they are willing to pay. However, as we stated, utility patent applications are time intensive and the cost alone raises eyebrows.

Why?

Because if granted these patents, Zillow will be putting themselves at odds with their direct competition and other heavy hitters in the real estate search engine space. No biggie, it’s a free market, but brokers (who butter their bread) also feature automated rental rate tools, many not from Z.

As we mentioned before, this calls into question the unsavory practice of patent trolling. Patent trolls weaponize patents by scooping up patents from other companies instead of coming up with new ideas or technologies. In this case, it means grabbing patents for common technology, such as functionality that allows a user to compile a list of homes with desirable attributes in their prices range.

This kind of technology is already commonly used by several companies and some tell us they believe it shouldn’t need a patent in the first place. However, if Zillow’s applications for the patents go through, they can use them to threaten competing companies with legal action for infringement or failure to pay licensing fees for use of said tech.

Alternatively, this could be a brilliant move by Zillow to protect their intellectual property, their very own special way of automating this data, and that too is a smart business move.

We don’t know how this shakes out, but we’ll definitely be keeping a close eye out for updates.

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Real Estate Corporate

Zillow patent apps claim they invented AVMs, uploading home data via mobile

(CORPORATE) Zillow has applied for a handful of utility patents, and their invention claims will shock the real estate industry.

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It appears that online real estate search giant, Zillow, is applying for some pretty interesting utility patents. They currently have in four applications with the U.S. Patent Office, including automatically determining the current value for a home, the capture and use of a building interior data from mobile devices, and connecting and using building interior data acquired from mobile devices.

So, patents on AVMs and uploading data about a house via smartphone.

A claim that they invented both and should hold the patents.

First things first, what’s a utility patent?

Regarding inventions, U.S. Code defines a utility patent as “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.” Patents are instructions from inventors telling the public how to use their invention. 

There are two kinds of patents – utility and design. Design patents are less detailed requiring only drawings of one’s design and a very limited text explanation. Utility patents require drawings, diagrams and very detailed explanations of how the invention works.

Zillow has recently applied for four patents.

Two for separate patents for automatically determining a current value for a home. See here and here. Both of these include inventions that would have the ability to locate a home in a particular area as described by a user and thus offer the user the selling price and recently sold price through the evaluation of a home’s particular attributes.

The third is for the capture and use of a building’s interior data from mobile devices. This could mean using a phone’s camera to analyze the interior of a home to generate a representation of the home’s interior, for example.

The last patent is for connecting and using building interior data acquired from mobile devices which could mean automating the operations used to acquire images of a home’s interior such as using a phone to capture video for multiple views to put together a virtual representation of a home.

So, why is this important?

Utility patent applications are time intensive and super costly starting at around a few thousand dollars for simple inventions and leaping into the tens of thousands range for more complex ideas and technologies.

Considering the cost alone, one could assume that Zillow has something pretty big in store for the future or at the very least, some pretty lofty goals.

If granted, these patents would instantly put Zillow at odds with the majority of real estate tech companies and brokerages.

Could this have anything to do with rumors of their potentially being acquired in 2019?

Or could it having something to do with the expansion of Zillow Offers, the company’s direct home-buying and selling service?

Maybe Zillow’s just attempting to quash their competition?

Or maybe they’re looking to boost revenues with some good old fashioned patent trolling

Time will tell what Zillow’s patent rampage means, or if the Trademark Office will even grant these patents.

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Real Estate Corporate

New Zillow strategy – telling you to take your money and shove it

(REAL ESTATE) Zillow is adding a new feature that is raising eyebrows, but could go a long way toward consumers’ trust in their new direction.

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In college I would spend hours investigating what courses I would be taking the next semester. My university provided a flow chart of the kinds of classes I needed to enroll in, but it was completely up to me which one I chose. I used two main sites that helped my make my decision. One was a site that showed me every single variation of my potential schedule and the other was a crowd sourced rating site for the professor. Since then, several rating sites have come out all in different industries, and as you already know, real estate is no exception.

As a consumer, I have a very strange relationship with Zillow. I’ve never bought a house, but I’ve used Zillow to find multiple rental homes, to dream about homes I’ll never afford because I like avocado toast and to look at the before photos of a home my friends bought.

I also have a strange consumer opposition to them after their little Zestimates drama last year, their recent foray into alleged photo poaching, and their not so blatant attempt to run the table by buying a mortgage company.

That said, Zillow’s new strategy has my interest piqued.

With the purchase of Mortgage Lenders of America, Zillow has secured their place at the adults table of the real estate world. They’re now the search engine that will help you find a house, the company that will connect you to a Realtor and the lender that can help you buy it. Zillow is taking their one-stop shopping a step further and allowing you to rate your real estate agent (beyond their existing rating system) — just like I did with my professors.

Customers will be asked for input on agents’ communication style, responsiveness, trustworthiness, and expertise (sound like HomeLight? Yeah, I know).

In an effort to be customer satisfaction driven, Zillow’s Premier Agent customers will be privy to reports based on data that Zillow will collect from other customers that will gauge agents’ performance.

Zillow believes their customers are all about customer service and I can’t say they’re wrong. I don’t know of any industry where customers don’t want quality assistance. The irony is not lost on me, though, that they’re an online company trying to measure human interaction.

Zillow’s President, Greg Schwartz, explained, “we promise you this: we’re going to give you the greatest platform to make it happen. And we’ll keep pushing to get it right so you can deliver exceptional experiences.”

Solid promise, but how is it going to work? Will it be like the website I used to rate my professors where it was an option to do so or I could just lurk in the shadows and reap the benefits of the reviews? Or is it going to be like Uber / Favor / fill-in-the-blank-phone-app-service where I am required to submit a review before I’m allowed to do literally anything else? They’ve long had agent ratings, but insiders suggest that an Uber-esque rating is really what’s in play here.

Schwartz went on to talk about agents who aren’t performing up to customer standards — again, are there hard and fast guidelines? Because I can guarantee you that as a customer, I will have different standards than Mariah Carrey.

Schwartz said, “For agents who aren’t performing up to customers standards — Zillow will no longer be interested in taking their money. The company wants to be able to tell every consumer who comes to the site that the agent they select will deliver a high-quality experience.”

Whoaaaaaa. Schwartz is really swingin’ for the fences there. If you aren’t up to Zillow’s standards, they’ll tell you to take your money and shove it. Despite a shaky opinion of the mega-company, this speaks to me.

I’m not entirely sure alienating large groups of a people you’re trying to work with is the best strategy, but Zillow seems to have the appearance of trying to do good things. We’ll see what shareholders think, how brokers will respond to a potential Uber-esque rating for their agents, and ultimately, how consumers opt to trust the data in a sea of subjective agent ratings alongside endless lawsuits against that shake confidence in the brand.

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