Agents at RE/MAX Equity Group in Portland, Ore., were suspicious.
A site called agent-ratings.com was giving F grades to agents as a result of what appeared to be faked customer ratings. They consulted with the company’s general counsel Jeffrey S. Davis.
At the site, agents are given a grade in five categories: knowledge, professionalism, reliability, experience, and communication, as well as an overall grade.
The site offers an A ratings for life to agents who pay $99. If you look at the ratings of agents who haven’t paid for the A rating, you’ll see some obvious patterns, Davis says. First, it appears that every agent who hasn’t paid has an overall F rating, he says. In addition:
- No agent has an F ratings in every category.
- Every agent has two or three—not one or four or five—different grades.
- No agent has any individual category rating of B or A.
“These factors suggest a limited attempt to make the ratings appear to be genuine,” he says. “There would be much more diversity in the ratings if the ratings were real.”
I did my own search of the site. When I searched for agents from Oak Park, Ill., where I live, the site returned results from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and Thousand Oaks, Calif. So I tried using the “Find Agents by State” function and clicked on Illinois. Lo and behold, every name I clicked on had D and F ratings in the individual categories and an overall grade of F.
Davis investigated the provenance of agent-ratings.com, and, again, what he turned up was suspicious. “The WHOIS record indicates it was created on Jan. 25, 2013,” he says. But when he scanned the site, the customer ratings supposedly predated creation of the site. “I just took a quick look at about 100 of the ratings, and all of the agents’ ratings are dated 2011 and 2012,” he says.
The recent exposure and shutdown of bogus rating Web site—Realtor-complaints.com—was a victory for the industry and proof of the need to be vigilant in policing so-called rating sites.
In the case of Realtor-complaints, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® attorneys were able to identify the site’s operators and exert pressure based on misuse of the REALTOR® trademark.
Evaluating and taking action on agent-ratings.com is trickier.
“We have reviewed all the domain name records associated with [agent-ratings],” says NAR attorney Michael Thiel. “The site’s real owners are hidden behind one of the privacy services that operate to prevent people from contacting those owners. It appears that the company has at least some operations in Panama, as the contact page includes a location there.”
If the location in Panama is correct, he says, that means the site is operating outside of U.S. jurisdiction, making NAR’s options for challenging it limited.
Consumers should be able to see through the site’s weak content at a cursory glance. But if you get questions from prospects, you can point out that such sites have cropped up around a variety of professions, and any site that offers “premium ratings” of professionals for a fee isn’t a true rating site.
Other sites, such as RipoffReport.com, are more difficult to judge. This site allows essentially anonymous, unsubstantiated claims. Yet it also allows those who have been the subject of a complaint to provide a free rebuttal.
The trouble is that rebutting a complaint can make the practitioner look defensive, says Jeff Berger, a REALTOR® from Boca Raton, Fla., who says he has been the subject of false complaints. For example, one complaint against him centered around a supposed listing appointment.
Berger, who got his license and joined the association in pursuit of another goal – to found and grow the National Association of Gay & Lesbian Real Estate Professionals – says he hopes to go on a listing appointment someday. But, thus far, he has never been on one. Meanwhile, the claim continues to harm his reputation, he says, by turning up high in a Google search of his name.
A Real Ratings Alternative
Given the continued plague of fake and unsubstantiated ratings, I was excited to learn that NAR has partnered with the respected Quality Service Certification to launch its own agent rating system. The REALTOR® Excellence Program enables brokers and agents to receive and track ratings from actual customers.
I’ve talked with Kevin Romito of QSC, as well as NAR General Counsel Laurie Janik, who is facilitating pilot programs in suburban Chicago, Denver, St. Paul, and the state of California. Ratings are attained using QSC’s time-tested customer service survey, which brokers have been using more than a dozen years.
Brokers and agents who participate in the REALTOR® Excellence Program, choose whether to share those ratings publicly or not. Either way, they can be sure the ratings are the result of actual closed transactions, and they can use the detailed data to improve their customer service experience.
Long term, if the REP became a national rating standard, it could conceivably encourage E&O insurers to offers discounts to companies and practitioners with high ratings, Janik says.
Better still, if the program gains consumer recognition, that will make it much more difficult for false and unsubstantiated ratings to surface.
It didn’t take long once the pressure was on to shut down Realtor-complaints.com. The Web site was misusing the REALTOR® trademark, posting false complaints about real estate practitioners, and demanding money to have the complaints removed from the site.
On Jan. 10, I wrote a post about the site and more than two dozen readers responded. Many recounted their stories of finding their name on Realtor-complaints.com and being asked to pay to have the complaint removed. NAR and many state associations were working in concert to end the misuse of the trademark. Yesterday, a page appeared indicating that the site had been sold and that it would be re-launching May 1. Today, the site is simply a page of links operated by one of the advertising sites.
The WHOIS record indicates that the site is suspended. “That is encouraging,” says National Association of REALTORS® attorney Mike Thiel, “but we are trying to find out what that means going forward.”
One thing’s for sure: The closure of Realtor-complaints.com isn’t the end of such Internet scams. My Jan. 10 post included simple steps you can take to manage your own reputation online. But there’s one step you should never have to take: paying money to have false information removed from a site.
A Web site of suspicious origin is misusing the REALTOR® trademark in what seems to be an attempt to get money from real estate practitioners.
The site, Realtor-complaints.com, supposedly publishes consumer complaints about real estate agents. However, an investigation by the New Jersey association of REALTORS® showed a string of complaints against its members, all using similar phrasing. “This leads to suspicion that these are not all public-submitted complaints,” says Lauren Castellano, director of communications for the New Jersey Association of REALTORS®.
Not only that, when agents who have been the subject of a complaint attempt to make contact, the site offers them the “opportunity” to pay to have the complaint and their name removed from the site, says Michael Thiel, an attorney for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. NAR legal staff checked the WHOIS record for the site and discovered it’s hosted on servers located in the Seychelles. “It’s recorded as having been initially registered on Jan. 1, 2013,” Thiel says, ”which makes the site’s claim of having been around since 2002 very suspect.”
Thiel’s office has received a number of calls from members who’ve been informed, via e-mail, that their name is listed at the site. NAR attorneys are investigating and, if necessary, will take steps to have the site shut down. [Jan. 23 Update: Wendy Legerton below asks why NAR isn't taking more aggressive action. In response, NAR Associate General Counsel Ralph Holmen offers this: "This site does not have authority to use the term REALTOR®, and NAR has taken action to stop them from using it. That action does not (yet) involve litigation, but the possibility of initiating suit remains if our efforts are not successful.”] But it’s important to approach with caution any service that claims to either track or burnish your reputation. Online reputation management—and reputation trashing—is a growing enterprise, and there are simple steps you can take to manage your own reputation online:
- Make sure all of your profiles (on social media sites, at REALTOR.com, and so on) are complete, up to date, and consistent.
- Be proactive in asking customers for reviews in legitimate forums, such as Yelp and LinkedIn.
- Search Google and Yahoo for your name and your company’s name. Save each search as a browser favorite and check them daily.
- Sign up for Google Alerts so that you’re notified when your name appears in a search. Also set up alerts for variations of your name, your company name, and other keywords.
- Ask your customers where they’ve gone to search for information about real estate and other professionals.
- Correct errors quickly. Immediately contact the Web site and be willing to prove your case with information from your MLS or other sources. But don’t be tempted to pay to have information removed. “It’s hard to imagine a legitimate site requiring you to pay to take down false information,” Thiel says.