‘Want to sell your house?’ Complaints increase about unsolicited real estate texts

By Ron Hurtibise

Here’s how desperate some real estate agents and investors are to find new homes to sell in Florida’s red-hot marketplace: They are sending out unsolicited text messages to find potential sellers.

“Hope you are having a wonderful day. By the way, do you own the house at 26840 SW 142nd Ct,” reads a message sent Friday to Wladamiro Romanovski, a Miami resident. “If you do great! Would you like to sell if the price is right?”

Consumers who don’t want to be contacted by real estate companies have little recourse beyond responding with the word “Stop” and hoping the sender complies.

Romanovski, who owns several investment properties in South Florida, says he gets at least seven texts a day asking if he wants to sell. “It’s a big sore spot with me,” he said. He says he blocks numbers, but companies just change the number that shows up on his phone and continue to send him texts.

While putting your name and phone number on the state and national Do Not Call lists makes it illegal for companies to use automated systems to pitch a good or service, texts soliciting sellers are not considered violations, authorities say.

Romanovski is among recipients who have filed 244 complaints through the first nine months of 2021 to the Florida Division of Consumer Services about the unsolicited real estate texts. That’s up from 145 in 2020 and 16 in 2019.

Homeowner Richard Levis says he’s subjected to “nonstop harassment” from text messages asking if he wants to sell his house in Hollywood. “They have your name, they have your address, they put everything about you in the text,” he said.

Jupiter resident Bill LaFlamme has lost count of how many text solicitations he’s received from people begging to buy his property — plus property he has never owned. “If I say hundreds, I wouldn’t be lying,” he said. “I’m just so tired of it. I don’t want to sell my home.”

It’s not just property owners who get the text solicitations. A sampling of 10 recent complaints obtained from the Division of Consumer Services include several from consumers saying that they don’t own a house and don’t understand why they were contacted. Others said they don’t own the properties mentioned in the texts.

Seeking sellers not illegal

Levis and Romanovski say they’ve filed multiple complaints to the state but have never received a response.

A possible reason: state law does not prohibit solicitations by voice or text to Do Not Call list registrants if the sender is trying to convince the recipient to sell, rather than buy, something, says Alan Parkinson, chief of mediation and enforcement for the Division of Consumer Services.

Under state law, companies are not allowed to send texts, calls or direct-to-voice mail messages seeking to sell goods or services to consumers registered on the Do Not Call list or who do not provide written permission. Violators are subject to fines.

“If they’re selling a service — asking if you want your carpets cleaned, have a new roof put on your house, or pressure wash your driveway — that’s what we look for,” Parkinson says.

Asking if someone wants to sell something “is different.”

Even if they were illegal, tracking the source of the unsolicited texts would be difficult, Parkinson said. Caller IDs for most are likely spoofed by the software that sends the messages, he said.

Unless a consumer chooses to respond, there’s little way to know whether the sender is a licensed agent or broker, a part time property flipper, or a scammer.

Among the 10 complaints obtained from the state, only two identified names of legitimate real estate companies. Of those, one did not respond to a request to discuss its marketing strategy while another disputed the complaint, stating that it only sends text messages to consumers who sign up for a customer benefit program and check a text message opt-in box.

Two other complaints identified companies with hard-to-trace generic names including We Buy Houses and Property Cash Buyers.

Most of the phone numbers identified as sources of the texts were not in service for return calls or texts on Friday. One number was answered by a recording of an unidentified male voice saying, “I’m on the other line. Please leave your name and the address of the property you are calling about or send me a text.” No one responded to a text seeking to talk about the man’s text solicitations.

Large companies don’t text without permission

Florida Realtors, formerly known as the Florida Association of Realtors, declined to talk about whether it endorses unsolicited text messaging by its agents. A spokeswoman said the organization’s top attorney would have to address the issue, but she would not be available Thursday or Friday. However, a blog entry posted on the association’s website discussing how agents can use text messaging to communicate with clients does not mention using texts to cold call prospective buyers or sellers.

The real estate marketplace website Zillow offers enhanced services to its “Zillow Premier Agent partners,” including advice on how to use text messaging to communicate with clients during the sales process. But texts are not sent out “until the buyer or seller is ready and expressly asks for a connection to be made,” Zillow spokesman Tyrone Law said.

Christina Pappas, vice president of the Miami-based agency The Keyes Company, declined to say whether or not consumers should respond to unsolicited texts even if they do want to sell their home.

“That is up to the consumer,” she said. But Pappas recommended that consumers considering engaging with the sender make sure that they’re dealing a licensed, reputable entity.

Ultimately, “I think the safest and best way to sell your home is to contact your local real estate professional,” she said. “They are the ones who know your local market and can get you the best value.”

While consumers might find it creepy to get a text with their names and addresses, Parkinson said companies most likely obtain that information from the publicly available databases on property appraisers’ websites. Typically that data includes owner names for nearly every land parcel and building, as well as sales records, dates of previous sales, market values, taxable values, square footage and even rough sketches of buildings.

“People have to remember that the information is public to begin with. It doesn’t take much digging,” Parkinson said.

Data companies likely scrub such databases for public records, then match the addressees to cell phone numbers maintained in non-public databases before selling the information real estate agents and brokers for use in generating property listings. But as complaints from consumers who don’t own property make clear, often the information is outdated or riddled with errors.

If it’s not selling, it’s ‘fair game’

Targets unhappy with the state’s hands-off approach won’t find relief from current federal law either.

A year ago, it was illegal under the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) for automated telephone dialing systems to send unsolicited texts or calls — for any purpose — to anyone who did not first provide express written permission to the sender, said Manuel Hiraldo, a Fort Lauderdale-based attorney who has represented clients in cases alleging TCPA and Do Not Call Act violations.

Under the old interpretation, any equipment that dialed from a list of numbers qualified as an automated telephone dialing system and fell under TCPA regulation. Unsolicited real estate texts used to be considered violations, Hiraldo said.

But in April, the U.S. Supreme Court decided unanimously, in a case titled Facebook vs. Duguid, to narrow the definition of an automated telephone dialing system to equipment that stores or produces numbers using a random or sequential number generator. That left systems that dialed numbers from lists or databases unregulated.

The Florida Legislature tried to “plug the hole” opened by the Supreme Court decision with a law that took effect July 6 requiring expressed written permission for texts or calls aimed at selling a good or service. But the law didn’t cover calls or texts asking recipients if they want to sell something, Hiraldo said.

Other types of communications that don’t require prior consent include job offers, political speech, religious messages, surveys, and requests to donate to charities, he said. “Anything that does not involve selling something is fair game,” he said.

Federal regulations still require senders of unsolicited texts to make it possible for consumers to avoid further texts by replying “STOP,” Hiraldo said. If the texts keep coming, he suggests that consumers block the phone number that sent them and report the texts as spam to their telephone service provider.

According to Parkinson, the only way unsolicited real estate texts asking owners to sell their homes can be made illegal would be if the Legislature decides to change state law.

Romanovski said he would not only support such a change, “I’ll be the first in line to argue for it. I’m that passionate about it.”


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