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Just surfing? Agents' sites may be looking at you too

October 01, 2006|Benjamin Brayfield | Times Staff Writer

Consumers might have thought they had refuge on the Web, browsing real estate listings and locating properties without being hassled by agents' sales pitches. They found the Web a quiet place where no one peppered them with questions about their salary, their savings and whether they pay their bills on time. They got to look at photos, take virtual tours, and few sites even demanded as much as their name.

Think again.

The customer service and sales software engineering company is among providers of software that notify agents when you are on their websites, even if you don't give them any information. It tracks what pages you visit and how much time you spend on a site. The software also allows agents to launch real-time chat windows so they can contact you and "offer help."

In addition to software programs that automatically open pop-up windows and send unsolicited e-mails are others that kick in when a consumer enters his or her e-mail address on a website to view its information.

Advanced Access serves realty agents who want to tap into the online market but lack the technological skills to build a website. It offers Web design packages that include mortgage rates, community profiles and virtual tours tailored to an agent's market. Among its offerings is the "Client Follow-up System," which, the site says, "ensures your clients are contacted with our AUTOMATIC follow-up campaign (7 powerful e-mails). Entice prospects to 'sign in' to your website with our NEW 'Pop-Up' manager. Add 'pop-ups' to any page of your website."

When a consumer enters his or her e-mail address on the website to view its information, the software creates a folder that stores information for that person, as well as when he or she logged in and what properties were looked at.

It seems natural for real estate firms to try to snare customers through Web advertising and other tactics. But what agents need to appreciate, says Michael Russer, president of business solutions provider Russer Communications, "is that only 5% of online consumers are ready to do something now. The other 95% are still searching."

Jay Izso is part of that 95%.

Izso, an independent real estate broker and consultant in Raleigh, N.C., received an e-mail from an agent requesting an appointment to discuss Izso's "interest" in the agent's website.

"I assure you," he says, "I did not fill out anything."

The e-mail is "precisely" the behavior he advises other agents against, Izso says. "Can you imagine someone actually watching you looking at homes? That would freak you out." But, in fact, they can and do.

In his reply to the agent's e-mail, Izso says he promised he would never visit the site again. Besides, Izso continued, information should be free -- completely free. Izso recalls the agent responding that he wouldn't go into McDonald's and expect to get food for free.

"Yeah, but I can walk into McDonald's and look at the menu for free," Izso says.

The conundrum then is how agents can gain an edge in a competitive market while not turning off online browsers who want their space.

"With over 500,000 real estate agents in California, chasing 36 million residents for listings, capturing business is about being the one who fishes the farthest upstream," says Blanche Evans, associate editor of Realty Times and author of "," a sales associate-friendly guide for online consumers.

Upstream fishing began about 10 years ago, Russer says, with special scripts hidden in a realty agent's website that used the visitor's e-mail software to send a blank e-mail to the agent. An agent could then contact the consumer through e-mail or Google the e-mail address to try to find other personal data.

Nowadays, agents cannot get into a consumer's computer to obtain personal information, but Internet surfers should be cautious when viewing real estate websites that require an e-mail address or a name just to enter the site. Why? Because this is one way agents generate leads -- and then cold-call consumers.

Another behind-the-scenes way that realty agents acquire consumer information, Russer says, is through third-party lead-generation websites such as or

These sites attract online visitors by offering free consumer reports on mortgage rates, Realtor locators and home appraisals. The websites obtain personal information through forms that consumers must fill out to get the "free" information -- such as a street address for a home appraisal. The leads generated by these forms are then quickly sold to real estate companies.

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