A small Web site was launched in 2006 calledfor the purpose of assisting buyers and sellers in the market for real estate to find the best deal possible. The site has taken public records from county recorders offices around the country and compiled lists of data by neighborhood block for as many homes on that block as possible. You can search the site by inputting any street address and up comes a list of all the homes on the same block in list form. The list includes the address, the names of the homeowner(s), the date of purchase and the price paid. Beyond that, the Web site selects and profiles specific sellers and buyers, identifying them by name, occupation and place of employment and then also links to the various Web sites with additional data on the individual buyer or seller. Byline links such as “OB/GYN buys 4BD in Wheaton” and “President of XXX Co. selling penthouse in Chicago” appear in list form on the site. When you click on a link a plethora of information comes up on the individual buyer, totally unrelated to the purchase of the home.
The Web site offers a multitude of search options and functions, that provide a valid service to the legitimate buyer. However, as an attorney and a long time advocate and counselor of battered women this Web site gives me great concern, especially in light of the effect of Google. Type in a name of any person known to own a home and the word “blockshopper” into the Google search engine and the first hit will likely be the listing on Blockshopper.com. In certain cases there is also a satellite shot or street view on Google maps of the property itself. In the hands of a stalker, an angry or needy client, an enraged opposing party, a disgruntled employee/customer, thieves or a former abusive partner this Web site provides a fast track to finding the private abode of any target for harm.
Blockshopper.com has already been sued by the Chicago law firm Jones Day for its practice of creating unauthorized profiles of recent homebuyers who happen to be attorneys and then providing an unauthorized link to the attorney’s firm Web site. The case was recently settled. However, it is apparent that the safety concerns this invasion of privacy creates have not been subject to the scrutiny of the Courts.
When contacted with a request to remove personal information the reply is the following form statement:
BlockShopper publishes public records. Property ownership and sales information is listed publicly in multiple places on the internet and in other publications. We get our data from the county-- it is the public record. It’s our goal to be accurate and consistent, so we don’t simply edit the public record on any request. Our Legal/Marketing First Amendment team can be reached at our Chicago office. They typically take 15-45 days to respond. For faster service, please include in the Subject Line of the Letter: “Publishing Public Information.”
While they are correct, that the information provided on this site is a matter of public record, the compilation and transmission of data in this manner opens the door for danger. Conducting title searches or viewing the properties through the MLS creates filtering systems of safety. Usually those searches are done by licensed professionals such as realtors and attorneys subject to ethical standards of propriety. While anyone can conduct a search for this information, most do not know how.
Is this truly a matter of First Amendment rights? When I buy a home does that mean I subject myself to being profiled on Blockshopper.com so that any interested person can know where I live, what I paid for my home, where I work, what my affiliations are, where I went to law school, and what I look like? This Web site links all other Web sites related to a profiled buyer or seller that they deem relevant, with no checks and balances under the law, without prior consent and without informing the individual that the profile exists.
While there are legal remedies available, such as creating a land trust for home ownership, land trusts require annual fees and are burdensome to lenders as the practice is considered outdated. Is there no duty to inform the public or no requirement for prior consent for a private party’s Web postings to be used to promote the business of a third party entity? Should there not be the option to opt out of having your information posted in this forum?
Investigation continues into the practices of Blockshopper.com. I call this issue to your attention and encourage you to search yourselves and to encourage your clients to do the same. We too have the right to speak. I call all those in opposition to the practices of Blockshopper.com to speak out against it and to come together to find a solution to keep our homes safe. ■