Would Edward Snowden Work For Zillow?

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.


11 thoughts on “Would Edward Snowden Work For Zillow?”

  1. I’d say they do it to keep Realtors from collecting and spamming email addresses. This is the same system Craigslist uses to prevent abuse.

    If you form a real relationship with the client you will of course get their real contact info, so this is really just about making sure that someone replies to the customer.

    I find the connection with Snowden fairly ridiculous. I think almost everyone assumes that filling in a sales lead form is the equivalent to writing your number on the wall of a bathroom stall.

  2. Wow Im so concerned with what they are doing with my information. They email me for info on a house, I reply back with information for the client.

    What I am hoping they are doing is watching to see who is providing good relevant information and being helpful vs who is not trying to help the consumer so they can give more advertising space to those who are actually being helpful.

    In other words.. move along, nothing to see here.

  3. It is how Zillow tracks the response to consumer inquiries. And most aggregators, such as Craigslist, Trulia, et al, do the same thing.

    There are clear terms of service posted and consumers who are filling these forms out opt in.

    Tempest in a teapot.

  4. Though I do agree with the other comments made concerning Zillow’s probable use of this “strategy”, I believe it is just that very thinking that gets most people in trouble.

    First, who has time to read all of the “terms and conditions” of every website you sign up with? These companies know that maybe 5% at best is going to not only read BUT ALSO comprehend what is in those lawyer-jargon filled documents. If they really had good intentions for storing every email dialogue in their database, they wouldn’t be slick about it.

    I am no conspiracy theorist either, but thinking these companies are not using your information without your knowledge to increase their profits, you are blind. Our government used 9/11 to loosen privacy policy here in America. They took advantage of our concern for protection by violating our need for privacy. Corporations do it ALL THE TIME, and we should question their practices, even if they are lawful.

    Steve, your concern may be unfounded, but I think we should watch our “trust” in these large online companies. They do not have your interest in mind, but that of their stockholders!

  5. Can’t say what they are or are not doing with the actual information but that’s a lot of information to just store around for very long. My guess is that they strip out personal information and keep data that you may not have even thought about. Here’s just a few possibilities…

    1. How long does it take on average for a consumer to receive a response?
    2. How long does it take on average for a consumer to respond to a response?
    3. How many communications are sent back and fourth between consumer & agent
    4. What’s the life span of e-mail communication between a consumer & agent?
    5. What e-mail clients are the most popular among agents and consumers?

    This kind of information is much easier to track and analyze than trying to scrape out relevant and personal information found in any e-mail. This kind of information can help them build better products and services for consumers and agents. This kind of information can help them write some pretty useful industry related press releases, blog posts and so on.

    We have to remember that Zillow is a technology firm. They pay attention to Analytics very closely and likely have a dedicated team that do nothing but measure this kind of information and then use it to improve upon their business model. They likely don’t care about you or I as an individual in the slightest.

    Anyways, just some thoughts from someone that’s very invested in Website Analytics. Cary on!

  6. Tim, I’m not sure how Realtors could spam consumers.

    And I think Craigslist is different. Strangers connecting to buy/sell something with much more of a seller/buyer beware. The Snowden connection might be ridiculous, but I still think he wouldn’t work for Zillow.

    John, since the email from Zillow gives the actual email address of the consumer, I just manually replace the Zillow alias with the actual email address. Zillow must think I never respond.

    We stopped sending any of our sales listings to Zillow, Trulia, or any other Syndicator earlier this year. I still send lease listings to Zillow because that feeds them to Hotpads.com as well, and those lease inquiries are generally pretty serious inquiries.

  7. @Steve,

    Analytics is never 100% accurate but I’m guessing not everyone takes the time to realize what Zillow is doing and correcting it before responding.

    Not to drift too far from the topic here but I’m curious… how has stopping syndication for a listed property worked out for you? Do you miss any of that possible referral traffic? Do you even notice the difference? I guess another important question might be to also ask you why you made the decision to not syndicate some of your listings?

  8. @John,

    Syndication sites are 100% irrelevant to the task of selling a listing in Austin TX. We’ve noticed absolutely no difference at all, and in fact are having a record sales year.

    I know this is a big debate in the Realtor community, and some blindly believe the disproven fallacy that “more exposure is better”, but I think it’s dumber than dumb for Realtors to freely give away listing data to sites such as Zillow and Trulia, where the information is corrupted and augmented with false and misleading data like the “Zestimate”. A listing down the street from me is listed for $820K. Zillow shows $569K as it’s Zestimate, which is grossly wrong. And it shows also an estimated mortgage payment, based on the Zestimate, that is way too low.

    I’m not willing to subject our sellers or their listings to that nonsense.


  9. @Drew,

    I’m not necessarily “worried”, but obviously the info is valuable in some way to Zillow else they wouldn’t collect it. I’m sure it’s a metric they use to claim “number of users” and to track “engagement” and other metrics that affect valuation of the business.

    If Zillow wants to do it in a cleaner, more honest way, there could be an “on behalf of” label, such as “Zillow on behalf of John Doe”, or something.

    As it is, it’s clear that the routing of consumer < -> Agent emails through Zillow servers is intentionally disguised. You’d have to ask them why they do that, but I assume it’s because they would collect less data if they didn’t, and the data has value. What they do with the data is a secondary question. The trickery shouldn’t happen in the first place, and the average agent and consumer are clueless about that fact that it even happens at all.


  10. I would argue that Zillow has caused more damage to US citizens that Edward Snowden could ever hope to achieve. Zillows flawed Zestimate algorithm and the very poor configuration control when managing the zillions of data imports from 3rd party data providers producing substantially erroneous valuations on millions of homes. When Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff admits on a TV interview that 17% of 100 million Zestimates are more than 25% incorrect then that is a serious problem, especially when Zillow refuse ALL reasonable requests from homeowners to correct or delete the erroneous Zestimate. What does Zillow hope to achieve by creating so much chaos and confusion in the real estate market place? let alone the misery and potential financial damage to homeowners inflicted with Zillows nonsense.

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