Consumer data breach

consumer data breach
Consumer data breach (infographic from breachlevelindex.com)

If you haven’t heard of the Equifax consumer data breach then you’re either uninformed or you just don’t care. Regardless, this breach of personal and private information should make you very concerned.  If not for your own personal data, then for our economy.  The Equifax breach was a massive data heist that included names, birth dates, addresses, phone numbers, and in some cases driver’s license numbers.

Besides causing personal harm, this data breach has the potential to wreak widespread economic havoc.  It was reported that the hack could impact up to 143 million consumers (almost half the country’s population is at risk).  If only 1 percent of the 143 million are not able to buy a home as a result of this data breach because of identification fraud or other credit report problems, that would be about 1,430,000 fewer homes sold, which is about 26 percent of all the existing homes sold in the US last year.  To put it in perspective, there was only a 20 percent drop in existing home sales from market peak (2006) to trough (2009) triggering the worst housing market since the Great  Depression and wiping out much of the country’s real estate wealth.

Let’s be clear, this is not a wake-up call.

The wake-up call came years ago when consumer data breaches and hacking first got the attention of the public and government.  Since, the snooze alarm has continually been reset.  According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (privacyrights.org), since 2005 there have been 7,671 data breaches totaling to 1,070,164,636 records breached.  The clearinghouse only counts the data breaches that “have a high chance of exposing individuals to identity theft.”

One of the first consumer data breaches to draw government ire and fines was the Choicepoint breach in 2005.  The 145,000 consumers affected by that breach pales in comparison to the Equifax consumer data breach.  Choicepoint was fined $10million by the FTC as well as having to provide $5million for consumer redress.

Since Equifax’s public announcement of the consumer data breach, Congress and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has called for hearings.  Of course, hearings take time and are a knee jerk reaction to the damage that has already been done.  But the hearings will address the many questions surrounding this incident, such as: how the hack occurred; why it allegedly took Equifax two months to reveal the hack; and why were Equifax executives allegedly allowed to sell company stock before the data breach announcement?

And because of the potential financial and economic impact of hacking and consumer data breaches, the questions that should also be asked include: Why hasn’t government taken steps to protect such information prior this data breach?  How will government protect consumers moving forward?

Are consumer data breaches becoming acceptable?

Equifax’s incident is not the first of its kind, and unfortunately, nor will it be the last.  But it is the largest breach of private and personal information to date.  This incident should make you wonder if the stewards of our private and personal information, along with the government agencies and bureaus, are incapable of or not totally invested in protecting the consumer.

Be vigilant.

Equifax has set up a site to check if you’re affected by this data breach, however many have demonstrated that it does not work properly.  It may be best to assume you’re at risk and take necessary actions to protect yourself. The Federal Trade Commission (www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2017/09/equifax-data-breach-what-do), the CFPB (www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/blog/identity-theft-protection-following-equifax-data-breach) offer tips in protecting your personal and private data.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.

Real estate BS detector

real estate BS detector
Become a real estate BS detector (infographic from visual.ly)

DARPA issued a recent request for information seeking ideas about how to create automated capabilities to assign “Confidence Levels” to scientific studies, claims, hypotheses, conclusions, models, and/or theories.  In other words, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to create a BS detector.  First reported by Adam Rogers for WIRED (Darpa Wants to Build a BS Detector for Science; wired.com; July 30, 2017), DARPA doesn’t look at it as rooting out “BS” but rather establishing the what, why, and how scientists know stuff. Imagine how this could be applied as a real estate BS detector!

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s stated mission on their website is “to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.”  So, chances are that if they are able to devise a real working BS detector, you won’t know about it.

When it comes to real estate, people sometimes bend the truth.  Additionally, real estate agents are known for “puffery” and are generally not trusted because of the salesy techniques they employ.  But having a real estate BS detector would be huge breakthrough!  Imagine being able to weed through the BS and nonsense that many real estate agents spout when they are clearly trying to sell.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to check your real estate BS detector, when an agent is pontificating about a house or themselves, to know if the agent is wasting your time?  Unfortunately, the real estate BS detector is not a real device.  However, there are strategies to help you detect real estate BS.

“Luke, trust your feelings.”  Ok, there’s no such thing as a Jedi, but empirical research has demonstrated that intuition can be used to weed out lies.  Many say they rely on their gut instincts to protect themselves.  But the truth is that many ignore or don’t trust their intuition because the rational mind takes over and dominates.  Increasing your intuition could help you detect the real estate BS and prepare for (and maybe prevent) regretful situations.  Becoming more aware about your “gut feeling” can increase your intuition.

Being cynical can also help detect real estate BS.  Don’t be rude of course, but questioning what others say helps you clarify and understand them at a higher level.  It can also reveal untruths.  Question all claims and over-the-top statements.  For example, if you’re dealing with a real estate agent, ask for support to any assertion they make about themselves or their services.  Ask to speak to their references.  Also, ask for additional information that support their opinions on the housing market and deciding on a price to sell or buy a home.

Do your due diligence to discover real estate BS.  After asking questions, take what others say or do during the real estate transaction at face value and take it upon yourself to verify it.  It can save you a headache down the road.  It’s easy to verify many aspects of the real estate transaction, because many local jurisdictions have their databases online.  However, making a call or two to a helpful government employee is straightforward and can provide bonus information.  Verify licenses of real estate agents, loan officers, and even home contractors.  Verify permits of home improvements.  Verify the local schools and the home’s zoning.

Finally, don’t feel pressured to do anything.  The BS artist will make it seem as if you have to act immediately.  But if you are not comfortable with the situation or are not yet ready, take a pause.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.

Home listing syndication is big business

home listing syndication
Home listing syndication (infographic via trendmls.com)

Your home listing is a hot commodity!  Not just to home buyers looking to buy, but to those who buy and sell information on the internet.  MLS home listing information syndication is big business.

Much of what you see, hear, and read on TV, radio, and the internet is syndicated and distributed through a broad network of affiliated outlets.  The purpose is to have as large of an audience as possible.  The larger the audience, the larger the advertising revenue.  Syndicating and distributing media content has been around for a very long time, and has been very a lucrative industry for those involved.

Internet syndication is no different and has become sophisticated, such that websites will pay for licensed content.  The content attracts visitors and generates revenue via ads and/or pay-per-click.  Needless to say, internet syndication has developed to become a multi-billion-dollar industry.

When you think about making money in real estate, you probably think about buying and selling property, not the internet.  Most people don’t realize that real estate information generates $billions on the internet.  Real estate portals generate revenue by publishing content that attracts home buyers and sellers.  The sought after content, of course, is your home’s MLS listing.  Websites generate income by selling real estate and other professionals access to consumers who visit their sites to view your MLS listing.

You may not know this, but your home’s listing is copyright-protected by your agent’s Multiple Listing Service.  The content is licensed and syndicated to internet real estate portals and other publishers for a fee.  How much do websites pay for MLS licensed content?  Heck, you’d be hard pressed to find that information, much less acknowledgement that there is a fee paid at all!  And I suspect that information is not readily disclosed because consumers would be up in arms if they knew.

However, an article by Natalie Sherman appeared in the Baltimore Sun on January 27, 2015 (MRIS looks to partner with Zillow) gives a hint about the monetary relationship between MLS boards, syndicators and publishers.  Ms. Sherman wrote:

“Under the current system, Zillow pays to receive listings from Listhub.com, which has agreements with hundreds of multiple listing services, including MRIS, to provide syndication services to sites such as Zillow. Earlier this month, Zillow and Listhub said their existing deal would not be renewed.

A representative for Zillow, which has been working to establish more direct relationships with brokers and listing services for years, said a new deal would help keep the site more up to date.”

The article refers to the 2015 shakeup of real estate listing feeds to specific websites, such as Zillow.  At that time, Zillow sought direct deals with individual MLS boards, such as our local MRIS (now part of Bright MLS), to get MLS home listing feeds.

Chances are that you are unaware that the information about your home that is uploaded to the local MLS (including pictures of your home) become the property of the MLS.  Much less, you may not know that the information is licensed to others for a fee to be used on other websites.

Even though the MLS boards charge subscription fees to agents for the privilege of uploading and viewing content, they might argue that the fees generated by licensing and selling your information helps maintain the MLS system.  However, not disclosing this aspect of the real estate listing poses some ethical questions that must be addressed.

Of course, there are real estate brokers who have opted-out of syndication of their MLS listings.  These brokers want to retain control of  home listing information to ensure accuracy and maintain professionalism when presenting your home to the public.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Demand better consumer financial protection

consumer financial protection
Consumer Financial Protection and Dodd-Frank (infographic from CreditUnionTimes www,cutimes.com)

In an effort to reform the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (consumerfinance.gov) to become a better steward of consumer protection, H.R.5983 – Financial CHOICE Act of 2016 was introduced during the last congress.  The effort to compel oversight on the now embattled agency, as well as provide for a panel of decision makers (in lieu of a single chairperson), is unfortunately highly politicized.  As financial consumers, we should demand a better and fair protection agency serving without political motive.

From the Executive Summary of the The Financial CHOICE Act
Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs:

SECTION THREE: Empower Americans to achieve financial independence by fundamentally reforming the CFPB and protecting investors.

  • Change the name of the CFPB to the “Consumer Financial Opportunity Commission(CFOC),” and task it with the dual mission of consumer protection and competitive markets, with a cost-benefit analysis of rules performed by an Office of Economic Analysis.
  • Replace the current single director with a bipartisan, five-member commission which is subject to congressional oversight and appropriations.
  • Establish an independent, Senate-confirmed Inspector General.
  • Require the Commission obtain permission before collecting personally identifiable information on consumers.
  • Repeal authority to ban bank products or services it deems “abusive” and its authority to prohibit arbitration.
  • Repeal indirect auto lending guidance.

Some have hailed the CFPB because it was created out of good intention. There is no question that the CFPB has done a great job in collecting and publicizing consumer complaints.  The announcements of consumer complaints seem to be a public airing of consumer grievances, which sometimes signaled forthcoming action from the agency in a specific financial sector.

However, critics contend that the CFPB rules have made lending more burdensome for both lenders and consumers by increasing bureaucratic red tape.  It has also increased the cost of lending to consumers by adding levels of compliance measures that are now embedded within the lending process.  Critics have also complained that the CFPB’s enforcement is not fair and unequal in focus.

Critics are becoming increasingly vocal, not only because of the sometimes invasive rule making, but more recently of how offenders are chosen and penalized.  Jacob Gaffney’s article for HousingWire (Former CFPB attorney pretty much just confirmed the worst fears of the mortgage industry: housingwire.com; January 3, 2017) earlier this year discussed two genuine concerns about the CFPB:

1) “The CFPB targets lenders for enforcement action based on opaque internal decisioning;” and

2) “Monetary penalties seemed determined by revenue, not equalitarian application of said enforcement action.”

Gaffney quoted Ronald Rubin, a former enforcement attorney at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, (from a December 21st 2016 piece “The Tragic Downfall of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau” published online nationalreview.com) as confirming these concerns.  For example, the Wells Fargo fake consumer account scandal, one of the most egregious consumer scandals post financial crises, was not addressed by the CFPB (until it was too late) because Wells Fargo was allegedly “not a target of the agency at that time.”

Referring to the complaint database, Rubin stated:

The CFPB’s complaint database contained grievances against almost every financial business. Enforcement targeted the companies with the most revenue…rather than those with the most complaints.”  He further stated: “Targets (of the CFPB) were almost certain to write a check… Even the size of the checks didn’t depend on actual wrongdoing — during investigations, Enforcement demanded targets’ financial statements to calculate the maximum fines they could afford to pay.

The recent PHH Corp v Consumer Financial Protection Bureau case highlighted some of the alleged abuse of power by an agency with no oversight.  US Appellate Judge Kavanaugh wrote in his opinion:

That combination of power that is massive in scope, concentrated in a single person, and unaccountable to the President triggers the important constitutional question at issue in this case

…This is a case about executive power and individual liberty. The U.S. Government’s executive power to enforce federal law against private citizens – for example, to bring criminal prosecutions and civil enforcement actions – is essential to societal order and progress, but simultaneously a grave threat to individual liberty.”

We’ve followed the career of the CFPB since it was established in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.  Shortly after the financial crisis, we eagerly anticipated the new agency to help those who were the target of abusive lending and foreclosure practices.  Since its inception, however, controversy has embraced the agency.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.

Transforming real estate – whom do agents really represent?

transforming real estate
Real estate transformation over time (infographic from movoto.com)

The continuously transforming real estate industry continues to change because of two forces, consumers and real estate professionals.  It would seem intuitive that the forces should be complimentary, but a deeper analysis might suggest conflicting interests between consumers and real estate agents. Whom do agents really represent?

Efficiency, although not openly stated, is a main goal of both home sellers and real estate agents.  Home sellers want to sell their homes efficiently (as quick as possible and for the most money); while the real estate agent may be focused on collecting the most commission in the least amount of time.  A.W. Jenkins’ ground breaking research looked into why consumers continued to use brokers in a transforming real estate environment as a means of buying and selling a home.  Jenkins determined that the only reason why consumers did not use a more efficient “used house dealer” is because they don’t exist (Home, Sweet Home: Real Estate Brokerage in Canada, Vancouver, Canada: The Fraser Institute, 1989).  Jenkins discussed the incentive for consumers to sign commission based broker agreements, even when there are more efficient means of buying and selling a home; including a used house dealer, sell the house on their own, or even pay a flat listing fee.

Anglin & Arnott furthered Jenkins’ line of questioning and came to the conclusion that although a used house dealership (like the used car dealership) may be the most efficient means of buying and selling a home for the consumer, it is not an efficient business model for residential real estate professionals (Residential real estate brokerage as a principal-agent problem; The Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics; 1991, vol 4, no 2, pp 99–125).  The cost of maintaining a used house inventory for the dealer is prohibitive because home resale usually takes longer than reselling an automobile.  Another reason for non-existent used house dealers is government regulation: The sale of residential real estate by individuals other than the owner is highly regulated and sets standards for real estate brokerage.

Furthermore, they hypothesize that there may be broker “collusion” in maintaining existing business models:

…Collusion, we argued, is particularly easy to sustain and enforce in the residential real estate market because transactions require cooperation between the buying and selling broker…

As the transforming real estate industry continues its journey, the notion of efficiency has taken a substantial turn in favor of the real estate agent.  The advent of buyer agency and dual agency has allowed agents to leverage their name and reputation to other agents through a “team.”  Much like the medical office business model of luring patients through someone’s name and reputation, only to see the lower techs; the real estate team has become a popular business mode because an agent can leverage their time by having other agents do their work.  To further the confusion, in some cases there are teams within teams. But to understand the structure of the real estate team concept, think of a Russian nesting doll.  The team is a smaller nesting doll which is embedded in the larger nesting doll (the broker); and the team members are even smaller nesting dolls embedded within the team nesting doll.  To be fair, there are various team models in use today; some are better than others with respect to transparency.  The transforming real estate industry has moved towards real estate teams, which essentially operate as a brokerage within a brokerage.

Real estate team advertising and disclosure have become the focus of regulation in recent years, but has not entirely thwarted unscrupulous advertising that intends to mislead the consumer.  Furthermore, agents who are independent contractors and sub-contractors of brokers and other agents, can not only muddy the waters of agency, but can further distance the agent’s incentive and duty to their client.

In his article about the dual agency controversy (From subagency to non-agency: a history; inman.com; Feb 27, 2012), Matt Carter reminded us about a 1993 treatise by the former National Association of Realtors general counsel William North titled “Agency, Facilitation and the Realtor.”  The essay was written at a time when transforming real estate was about acknowledging buyer agency.  Agency relationships between Realtors and their clients were under scrutiny.  North was questioning whom agents really represent and if agents actually knew their role.  To make it easier for agents to know to whom they have a duty, North made an argument for eliminating the independent contractor status that prevails throughout the industry.  He stated:

An approach more difficult of acceptance by NAR membership would be the abandonment of the independent contractor status…The prevailing independent contractor relationship between broker and salesperson encourages “quantity” over “quality…It is clear from the letters which have been received by Realtor News on the Agency issue that far too many Realtors and Realtor Associations simply have no concept of what an agent is, does or cannot do or that their status as an “independent contractor” vis-à-vis their broker has nothing to do with their obligations, as an agent, to the seller or the buyer.  It only compounds the public confusion as to the status of a Realtor when Realtors themselves do not understand who and what they are.

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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.