Tens of thousands of homeowners are at risk of break-ins and assaults if their personal information is made available online when they sell their homes, the country’s largest real estate board charges in a blistering attack against the country’s competition commissioner.
The Toronto Real Estate Board will launch a major public relations campaign on Tuesday against a Competition Bureau demand to include more detailed information in online listings, arguing that making information such as a seller’s name and phone number available to casual browsers endangers lives.
While competition commissioner Melanie Aitken has levelled charges against several high-profile organizations such as Air Canada and Visa since assuming the job in 2009, this is the first time one of her targets has launched a public counter-attack rather than wait for its day in court.
“Easy access to information online is a huge safety issue,” said Von Palmer, the real estate board’s chief privacy officer. “There is a real possibility of break-ins and assaults; you only have to read the headlines to imagine what might happen. You hear stories about realtors getting attacked and killed. Can you imagine if we put that information out there about consumers? You can only imagine the headlines.”
A spokesman for the Toronto Police Service said he wasn’t aware violence against real estate agents was a problem in the city.
At the heart of the fight are websites launched by real estate agents that allow their clients to browse homes on their own. These listings are enhanced versions of what they’d find on Realtor.ca, the industry’s main national site for listings that saw 456,749 homes listed and sold in 2011.
These personal micro-sites are password protected, and are accessible only to clients. Anyone who wants the detailed information can still get access – but they must ask an agent.
Ms. Aitken argues this model perpetuates the traditional real estate model in which customers interact with agents at a time when competing services are trying to offer lower prices by eliminating the middle man. She wants any consumer to have access to the information, which includes prior selling prices, whether they have an agent or not.
The case is expected to be heard at the competition tribunal in the fall. But TREB – the largest of the country’s real estate boards, representing about 32,000 real estate agents – is going on the offensive with a website (protectyourprivacy.ca) warning consumers that the Competition Bureau “is trying to dismantle the safeguards for consumers’ personal and private information.”
It also hired polling firm Angus Reid Vision Critical, which undertook a phone survey of 800 Ontarians to gauge their views on privacy. It found 75 per cent of Ontarians don’t want their name and the sale price of their home made public, and 70 per cent don’t want their contact information provided to prospective buyers.
“Commissioner Aitken wants to release this information,” TREB states in a draft release of the poll obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The Competition Bureau bristled at the suggestion that it wants to force information into the public domain. Spokesman Greg Scott said TREB is trying to “distract from its anti-competitive conduct” in a bid to hang on to its market share.
“TREB is trying to have it both ways as the identical information is routinely provided today by real estate agents to consumers, either by hand, mail, fax, or e-mail,” he said. “TREB has for years permitted member agents to share this same information with their customers and they continue to do so today.”
The details are also available to anyone who visits an open house. A phonebook would provide the same information, as would a visit to any land records office in most cities. Mr. Palmer said it’s more dangerous to have all of the information online, because criminals would be “one-stop shopping.”