Would Edward Snowden Work For Zillow?

by Steve Crossland, REALTOR in Austin TX on August 21, 2013 · 11 comments

As you have no doubt heard, computer analysis Edward Snowden was so appalled by what he deemed to be egregious privacy violations and spying on U.S. Citizens by his employers the CIA and NSA, that he leaked classified information to the press to prove it, then fled to Russia where he remains.

Would he have been happier working at Zillow? No. He would have been just as appalled.

Zillow does not respect your privacy. The lead system at Zillow, through which consumers inquire about listings, surreptitiously records and collects your private communication with Realtors who respond to your inquiry. This isn’t obvious to a typical consumer because of the way Zillow masks where your emails are really going. I’ll try to keep this technical explanation as simple as possible.

How Zillow Plays Games with Email Addresses and Names
When a consumer on Zillow fills out the “I’m interested …” form, the email that arrives is as follows:

From: Zillow <Zillow@email.zillow.com> (this is what Realtors see in the “from” section of the email client)

In the body of the email it says:

New Contact

John Doe (johndoe@johndoeemail.com) is contacting you about a property on Zillow:
I am interested in 123 Main St, Austin, TX 78745. Contacted via Zillow.com

The second line above is the default text in the inquiry box. Most consumers don’t type into this box or ask questions, they simply fill in their contact info and click send with the default blurb. A real serious inquiry. (sarcasm intended)

Next, when the Realtor clicks “Reply”, she sees the following in the “to:” section of the email client:

“johndoe@johndoeemail.com” <reply-fe591075766702787312-359747_HTML-535847118-64517-44712xx@email.zillow.com>

What Zillow does here is cleverly place the consumer’s email address in the “name” section of the send field. Many email clients (the software you use to send and receive email, like Outlook or Yahoo or Gmail) only show the name in this format, not the strange long email address you see after the “name”. Zillow knows this.

The average Realtor is a 57 year old woman. Not tech savvy. When she looks at where the email is going, and sees the email address (placed into the “name” field), she thinks the email address is the destination address of the email. But really, if you look at the long weird email address after the name/email, that is where the email will be delivered, to the Zillow email server.

Once the email arrives on the Zillow server, it is forwarded to the consumer. If Realtor and consumer email back and forth to each other, they think they are emailing directly to each other because Zillow has programmed the emails to appear so. But really, all of this Realtor <-> Consumer email communication is being sent through and saved on Zillow servers, where they do ‘who knows what’ with it.

Zillow will surely say, “well, we are not reading your emails”. Then why do you have them?

Why not connect the consumer to the Realtor directly and let them communicate directly with their own email addresses instead of yours? Why act as a middle-man for email communication? And why are you doing it in such a shady manner, such that the average Realtor and consumer remain unaware of what I’m describing here?

What if, as a consumer, instead of emailing, you called the Realtor from a phone number on the listing, and it was secretly being recorded without you knowing? Would you be cool with that? Then Zillow might say, “well, nobody is listening. We are just recording it and saving it. That’s all”. It’s exactly the same as having your emails stored by Zillow.

Why? What for? Is this being disclosed in an obvious, up front way such that every consumer and Realtor knows this? Such that, if the Realtor starts pre-qualifying the consumer by asking personal questions about price, income, where they work, married or single, etc., the Realtor and consumer both know that this private information from this private conversation is being kept in storage on Zillow servers? What does zillow do with the content of these emails? Is it read and analysed in any way for keywords or phrases? How long is it saved? Can humans at Zillow read these emails?

Edward Snowden would be appalled.

My advice
Don’t email your inquiry from the online inquiry form. Pick up the phone. Dig through the clutter on the listing, find out who the listing agent is and call (not the advertisor Realtors on the top right column – they are paying to appear there and know nothing about the listing). Or better yet, call your own local buyer agent with the address and talk by phone. If you must email, find out the direct email address and send to that.

Am I being paranoid, all “black helicopter” and conspiracy theorist? I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone should be tricked into creating private content that’s being stored and used in ways you were not clearly made aware of up front. It’s common courtesy. And it’s not good, honest business practice to trick people.

 

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