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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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belair zillow listing lawsuit

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.

Real Estate Corporate

The tables have turned: Zillow being sued for violating antitrust law

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATE) A Vermont real estate company is bringing a lawsuit against Zillow for violating antitrust laws. Will it be enough to slow the real estate giant?

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Pen laying on a document covering antitrust law.

In a shocking upset, a Vermont real estate website is suing Zillow for violating antitrust law. The website, called Picket Fence, alleges that Zillow’s operation in Vermont led to millions in lost revenue, both past and projected.

According to court documents supplied by the state of Vermont, Picket Fence—a for-sale-by-owner business that originated and is located in Vermont—was one of the first significant FSBO businesses in the state. Picket Fence purportedly endeavored to use their services in order to connect private sellers with clients, thus negating the need for an agent or traditional real estate service.

Zillow, by contrast, is a “Foreign Profit Corporation” in Vermont. Since Zillow is located predominantly in Seattle, Washington, their presence in the state of Vermont falls under a different classification than that of Picket Fence.

The court document alleges that Zillow, by providing aggressive competition in a state other than that of its origin, deprived Picket Fence of due revenue. It also alleges that Zillow violated “state and federal consumer and antitrust laws” in addition to a handful of Vermont laws. The document refers to “unfair and deceptive acts” on behalf of Zillow, insinuating that Zillow’s operation in Vermont was damaging to FSBO services like Picket Fence.

While much of Zillow’s purported damage to Picket Fence is projected based on profit estimations from 2017, the fact remains that Zillow used the tactics they have used across the country to monopolize real estate business in Vermont. Picket Fence estimates that this will result in a net loss of over $142 million by 2030, so their case prioritizes monetary recompense.

On a separate note in the document, Picket Fence shows that Zillow’s operation and interference in Vermont prevented local FSBO and other real estate endeavors from taking hold despite the best efforts of Picket Fence. The complaint addresses this issue as another nail in the antitrust violation coffin.

Picket Fence continues to suggest that Zillow’s actions were and are illegal, damaging, and in violation of significant antitrust law. This isn’t surprising given Zillow’s long history of shady activity from patent-grabbing to lengthy court cases designed to crush competitors; it is these exact behaviors that Picket Fence is hoping to address in their complaint.

Zillow, for their part, will have to answer for a lot over the course of the last 12 months. This Vermont case is sure to be one of the first of many attempts to bring the real estate giant to its wobbly, monopoly-seeking knees—and, with any luck, it will be the first successful one.

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Real Estate Corporate

Watch out: Zillow’s terms of service have some sinister notes

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATE) Zillow’s updated terms of service allow them to make a lot of decisions with your data—none of which need your approval.

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Computer searching online open to terms of service page.

Zillow has a bit of a shady record. Between their excessive patent-hoarding and the aggressive nature with which they tend to squash competing services, you wouldn’t be remiss in treating them with caution—especially now that the real estate service is revamping their terms of service with some seemingly sinister changes in mind.

The actual terms of service prove for a lengthy—but recommended—read. However, WAV Group, a real estate consulting service, highlighted a few specific stipulations in the terms of service. If you’re here for the short version, it’s this: Have a lawyer look over the updated terms before agreeing to them if you’re a Zillow user. Otherwise, keep reading for a deep-dive on some of the more concerning aspects of these changes.

Data, regardless of the form in which it appears, should be considered an asset; if you aren’t worried about how Zillow (or other companies in their wake) will use the terms of service to legitimize sending away your information at a moment’s notice, you absolutely should be. To wit, WAV Group also recommends having a lawyer look over Zillow’s privacy policy which, while not on par with the terms of service, also underwent a bit of a redesign.

In a nutshell, Zillow’s updates allow them to use and distribute your data—including information associated with your listings—at their discretion. That sounds pretty standard, but Zillow makes it clear that they aren’t just using your data: They own it. What that means is you can’t repurpose or reuse that data again without specific parameters in place if you want to avoid breaking Zillow’s terms of service.

Zillow is also kind enough to alert you that they will take no responsibility for anything negative that happens as a result of your data use on their behalf, a process which can include unauthorized credit checks, the appropriation and use of your data by third-party services, and all of the downsides that accompany these actions.

So, for example, if Zillow passes along your data to a third-party service that has shaky web security, you can’t hold Zillow accountable for the hand-off regardless of negative repercussions on your end.

Now, you wouldn’t be wrong to want to delete your listing and clear out of Zillow after all of this, but you would be wrong in thinking it’s that simple. According to the new terms of service, you may delete your account, listing, and preferences; you just can’t delete any listing data from Zillow since, upon accepting those terms, your data is their data.

Finally—and, as WAV Group mentions, extremely importantly—Zillow’s new terms of service allow them to claim referral fees on your behalf without accepting any responsibility for potential harm to you, your property, your company, or—you guessed it—your data. This basically means that Zillow can act as a referring agency on your behalf without asking for your consent, which runs the risk of everything from raising your bottom line to risking your privacy.

It’s undeniable that Zillow has a motive here: Recuse themselves of responsibility for reckless and irresponsible behavior. Don’t trust the terms of service like you most likely do with other products here—make sure you have a lawyer (or at least a particularly shrewd second pair of eyes) to look over these terms before you sign any kind of deal with this real estate devil.

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Real Estate Corporate

Are rental companies taking too much advantage of apartment evictions?

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATE) With the convulsing housing market forcing people out of their apartment, massive rental companies are partnering with AirBNB to make up lost profit, and then some.

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As national lockdowns have left Americans feeling confined, the demand for short term rentals remains strong—despite the rampant rental crisis. It’s mighty convenient for corporate landlords and rental companies dealing with a backload of vacancies from recent waves of evictions.

ABC reports that the largest apartment landlord in the country, Greystar Real Estate, is gaining infamy for subletting their vacant apartments online. They manage over 500,000 rental units in the US.

One tenant, interviewed by Eyewitness News, stated they had found their apartment complex on the site, as well as 570 other Greystar properties across the country under the same host. Their landlord hadn’t disclosed these postings to them, either.

Most standard statewide rental contracts strictly forbid tenants from subletting to others through websites like AirBNB. But they don’t necessarily keep landlords from doing the same thing.

And in the absence of rent control laws, nothing stops them from rent gouging to drive their permanent tenants out.

Short term renters who apply for an apartment through AirBNB don’t agree to the same terms as long term renters. The actual residents of these buildings are ultimately held to a stricter standard, and potentially have to put up with more grief.

For example, if the property manager doesn’t intervene when disruptive behavior occurs in an STR, permanent residents are forced to put up with whatever trouble these guests might bring, from noise violations to dangerous activities. Anyone unfortunate enough to be stuck in a lease there is effectively trapped in a would-be hotel with no oversight. Over time, it creates a living environment that drives regular tenants out (meaning more space for overpriced Airbnb units.)

The practice puts disproportionate pressure on tenants that share complexes with temporary renters. And it’s not just unfair—this creates a potential health hazard, too.

Tenants in these buildings are rightfully concerned with the potential health risks of people constantly moving in and out of their building during a pandemic. Each new person passing through could potentially expose the rest of the building to the coronavirus (which is currently raging harder than ever, pushing hospitals to capacity across the country.)

All this stinks suspiciously like a potential violation of the Fair Housing Act to us. Renting an apartment through AirBNB or other rental companies would allow someone to potentially skirt the criteria that a regular applicant would otherwise be held to, and possibly rejected for.

In fairness, there are hosts doing their best to use their resources to help people, too.

Still, taking advantage of people’s desperation in the middle of an unprecedented economic depression is shameful—and AirBNB must take accountability for their role, too.

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