Monday, March 13, 2017

Is Trulia a Scam? Why Do They Keep Calling?

They send you SPAM e-mails and call you over and over again.  Is Trulia a scam or what?
Coffee is for closers, pal!

Several months ago, I did a piece about Comrade Bernie Sanders (who the Democrats actually think will save the Democratic Party!  It makes me cry).   I was investigating his finances, which appeared to be in a shambles.  He had a $450,000 mortgaged mini-mansion house in a new suburb of Burlington - something that seemed quite odd to me, for a progressive guy.  Since then, his wife came into an inheritance and they bought a $600,000 vacation "dacha" on North Hero island on Lake Champlain, which is sad, because it was a nice place to visit.  He also has a townhouse in DC, and a rental property in Burlington.

So there you have it, Comrade Sanders, man of the people, with well over a million dollars in personal residences.  He understands how we live, to be sure.

But that is not the point of this post.  In researching Sanders, I used the Trulia site to get an estimate of what his house was worth.  The estimate was kind of low, I think, as it is based on zip-code appraisal techniques, I believe.

Since then, the Trulia people won't let me go.   I've been bombarded with e-mail after e-mail from desperate Real Estate agents who want to know if I want to sell Bernie Sander's house, which of course would be illegal, as I don't own it.   Or maybe I want to buy it?   As far as I know, it ain't for sale.  Here is an example of such an e-mail, received while I was typing this:
Hi Robert,
I hope you are doing well.  I got your request about a free home value analysis on your home in the New North End.  Just wanted to reach out to you to see when a good time might be for us to chat for a few minutes.

Are you available at any point today or this week?


Dan Titus
Jarvis & Titus Realty Group
Kw Vermont
Sent from my iPhone
Months after I went on their website, and I am still getting these e-mails!

But SPAM e-mail isn't hard to deal with.  Mark it as SPAM, block the sender, and move on with life.

Then the phone calls started.   More than three months after my inquiry, I start getting calls.  And these calls are to my GoPhone, no less, so if I answer them, I pay 10 cents for the privilege.   At first I tried to be nice, and asked them to take my name off their call list.   But I kept getting calls from area code 802 - all from different numbers.  I block one number, and they call from another.   Some claim to be agents, others clearly are from call centers, with the noise of other operators in the background.

Each call connects in that same scammer way.  You pick up the phone and say "hello?" and there is a pause and a beep and then it connects you to someone.   Whenever I get a call and this happens, I usually hang up before it connects - it is always a time-waster on the other end.  Lately, I am just blocking all calls from area code 802.

So what is up with Trulia?   Is this a legit business or a scam?   The certainly act like scammers with their phone-bank calling techniques.

I think what is happening here, though, isn't a scam per se, in that they are doing anything illegal (except perhaps violating the Do Not Call registry) but rather are selling my contact information as a part of a collection of "leads" to Real Estate agents.

We all know about leads, right?

So they call, thinking I am serious about selling Bernie Sanders' house out from under him.   The leads are weak, my friend!  I am not a serious buyer of Real Estate at this point in my life, much less Real Estate in high-tax Vermont.

But apparently, it isn't just customers they annoy.  They also SPAM call agents, trying to sign them up for the service.   I guess the idea behind Trulia and Zillow is to act as a leads conduit, to get people on the Internet who are searching for homes, and then to sell this contact information to Agents for some sort of fee or as part of a package or whatever.

But the leads are weak, my friend!   Someone looking at Real Estate on the Internet might be serious about buying a house, or they might be just dreaming, or maybe they are just curious to see what the neighbor's house looks like inside or sells for.   It is like doing an open house - the only "customers" you'll get doing an open house are the neighbors who want to see exactly what sort of squalor the seller is living in.   Rarely do you sell a house at an open house.   At best, you might get a lead from some sucker buyer looking to buy a home (but likely can't begin to afford the house you are showing).

Choosing a Real Estate Agent is a hard thing to do.  They are salespeople and are in the business of selling.   And many of them are willing to do anything to sell you a home - often pressuring you to buy a house which you can't afford, don't want, or won't suit your needs.  When we were in Alexandria, one Real Estate Agent famously showed a young couple three town houses and then said, "Well, which one are you going to buy? Don't waste my time!"  Sadly, the couple actually bought.

The right house is the one for sale, the right person is anyone.

Very few Real Estate Agents take the time to really sit down with a client and discuss their needs or whether they even should be buying a house.   It is no different than a car salesman - you don't make "salesman of the month" at Lemon Motors by not pushing iron out the door, even if this means sticking people with lease deals with back-end charges or poor-credit folks with staggeringly high interest rate 7-year loans they are guaranteed to default on.

And once again, we face this conundrum in life.  Do we blame salesmen for being salesmen?  Do we try to enact laws or regulations to curb abuse of the system?  Or do we, as individuals, take on the responsibility of looking our for our own best interests?

It is hard to do, as no one wants to be a dick to some salesman, but you have to realize the smiling, friendly salesman is not your friend but your economic opponent.   This is fairly obvious in a car showroom setting or at the big-box electronics store - the person works for the company, not you, and is on commission based on sales.

But Real Estate Agents are supposed to be different, and the difference is they are Agents and technically supposed to follow the Laws of Agency.   And the Laws of Agency have gotten a lot of press lately as one Rule that Obama was able to push through before he left office (but sadly, one which will go away soon) was that financial advisers had to act as your Agent, with a fiduciary duty to you the investor above that to their employer.

As an Agent for a client, you are obligated to act in the best interests of the client.  This can place a lot of restrictions on your actions and put you at risk for legal liability.   As a financial adviser, for example, if you recommend a fund to a client because the fund company promised you a bonus, you are not acting the client's best interest, and could be sued if the fund goes South. 

Real Estate Agents are no better, sadly.   For example, many selling agents will put a cash bonus on a house - payable to the agent - if they sell the house.  This puts the agent in a quandary.  They personally profit more, if they sell one house over another, and thus they are incentivized to sell a house to a seller which may not be the best house for that buyer.

Similarly, if commissions are reduced in any way, a selling agent may steer a buyer away from one house with a 5% commission and towards another house with a 6% commission - getting 3% for themselves instead of 2.5%.

Worst yet, the selling agent, if they are also a listing agent, will be motivated to sell their own listings and get a full 6% commission over someone else's listing where they have to split the commission with the listing agent.   There are plenty of instances where conflicts of interest can occur.

These are just background noise, however, compared to some more egregious violations of the laws of Agency that occur in the Real Estate business.  For example, one agent I know bought her client's house.  The house was set to close when the buyer backed out, for lack of financing or something.  The seller panicked, as they were already slated to move to a new house and close on that.  The agent said they would "do them a favor" and buy the house themselves, knowing full well they could re-list it for a cool $50,000 profit in a matter of weeks, which is just what they did.   She was lauded as "helping out the client from a tight spot" but what she really did was violate her duty of Agency.   The seller could have gone to court, had they known, and forced the agent to disgorge the profits of the sale.   Sadly, the client never figured it out.

Yes, it would be nice to live in a perfect world, where people were honest.  It might be nice to have laws and regulations - and a means of enforcing them - where no one ever broke the law and everyone played fair.   Sadly, this is not about to happen.

So, we have to rely on our own instincts and just say "No" to crappy deals, and to view the representations of salespeople as basically being utter bullshit - even if they are supposed to be "Agents" acting on our behalf.

As for people cold-calling me from a list of "leads" I just say "No" to that.   If you do business with cold-callers, you perpetuate cold-calling as a means of doing business.  It is no different that giving a homeless guy $20.  You are not making his life better, but just perpetuating his situation.

Know when you are being marketed to and being baited.  Understand that salesmen are not your friend.  Do your own independent research first - hopefully not through some site that harvests your name and address and sics 1,000 Real Estate agents on you.

As for Trulia, I don't think it is a scam, but I doubt I would ever deal with an Agent who cold-calls me from leads that are almost a year old.

UPDATE:  Two more calls this morning (03/14) at 8:20 AM and 8:40 AM.   Both bounce to voicemail as I have blocked the calls.  The first message is just phone ringing endlessly (call center!).  The second message is from "Joe" who wants to know if I have any questions about Bernie Sanders' house.

I replied to the broker who e-mailed me and told him that he got a bad "lead" from Trulia, and I hope he wasn't paying a lot for these "leads".

Is Trulia/Zillow (Zillow now owns Trulia) going bankrupt?  Why the desperation Samba?   It seems the company is not making any money, from what I can tell.   They are doing a good job of grooming their image on Google, as any inquiry on Google produces hits to their websites for the first few pages.  With a P/E ration of nearly negative 30, they have a long way to go to become profitable!

So now it all makes sense - someone is selling my "lead" again and again to different Real Estate agents in Vermont.

UPDATE:  March 15, 2017, another call from (802) 526-2341 at 3:55 PM today.  I blocked call, it went to voice-mail, they left no message.

UPDATE:  March 16, 2017, "Matthew" from Trulia calls from (802) 526-2341 and leaves a messages asking me if I want to sell Bernie Sanders' house.   Make it stop!  Make it stop!

UPDATE:  March 20, 2017, "Brittany" calls from Trulia calls from (802) 526-2341 and leaves a messages asking me if I want to sell Bernie Sanders' house.   Make it stop!  Make it stop!   I have blocked their number, but they keep calling and leaving messages.  Ugh!

UPDATE: March 20, 2017, 5:20 PM, "Matt" from Trulia calls.  Same number, same bullshit.

UPDATE: March 21, 2017, 8:27 PM, "Cathy" from Trulia calls.  Same number, same bullshit.

UPDATE: March 23, 2017:

from:Alex Grace <>
date:Thu, Mar 23, 2017 at 1:26 AM
subject:Is Your Home Price Right?
encryption:Standard (TLS) Learn more

Hi Robert Bell,
I'm reaching out again about your recent home estimate on Trulia. While Trulia's estimate is a great jumping off point when determining what your home is worth, it doesn't always reflect what your home will sell for today.
I saw that you expressed interest in being connected with a real estate agent. If you'd like, I can put you in contact with Bryce Gilmer, a Trulia Premier Agent in your market. A local agent can give you a better idea of what your home could be worth.
When is a good time to reach you?
Alex Grace
Call me anytime at (802) 526-2341
Premier Agent Concierge with Trulia
If you're no longer interested in speaking with this agent, click here.
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I will click on the no more spam link and see if it stops. I have tried several times and everyone who calls, I tell to put me on the "do not call" list.   This is madness!

UPDATE: March 24, 2017.  They called again, left no message.  Same phone number.