Where all those Boston real-estate agents get your name and address

By | September 22, 2009

(Simulblogged on universalhub.com.)

Long-time readers of my blog know that I have been trying, for almost two years, to eliminate junk mail — the paper kind — from my mailbox.  I’ve registered everyone in my family with the DMA’s MPS, tried out various Web sites that purport to help you stop junk mail, and most time-consuming of all, contacted every single company or organization sending me junk mail and asked them to stop.

I am doing this for three reasons:

  1. Reduce the time I waste dealing with junk mail.
  2. Reduce damage to the environment caused by the production and transportation of mail that I don’t want or need.
  3. Reduce the expense to charities I support of sending me solicitations that won’t make me donate to them more or more often.

There is, however, one category of junk mailers that has been distinctly resistant to my efforts — Boston-area real-estate agents.

We receive a regular stream of postcards, refrigerator magnets, “free sale consultation” offers, etc. from area agents.  They are usually addressed to us by name “or current resident,” so the agents are clearly getting a database from somewhere, but they’re not filtering us out based on our MPS registration, so they’re clearly not typical bulk mailers.

Furthermore, the proportion of agents who respond with “Sorry, I can’t do that” when I ask them to stop writing to me is much higher than that of any other category of mailers.  This prompted me to wonder for quite a while what exactly is going on, until one of the agents actually clued me in.  I’ll explain by way of an example.

Go to http://www.cityofboston.gov/assessing/search/.  Enter “Strathmore” in the “Street Name” field and click “Search”.  Presto — you now have a list of the names and addresses of the owners of all properties on Strathmore Road in Boston.  If you are inclined to spend a little extra time, you can click on the “Details” link for each of them to find out which ones are owner-occupied.  If you’re technically inclined or have someone who is working for you, you can easily automate this with any of the available free and commercial “screen-scraping” tools.

There is no enforced limit on the number of results returned from each search.  There is no enforced limit on the number or frequency of searches from a particular IP address.  There is no enforced limit on the number or frequency of clicks on “Details” links from a particular IP address.

What the real-estate agents are doing is, quite simply, looking at a map, deciding which areas of the city they want to target, searching the city’s on-line assessing database as described above for the streets in those areas, sticking the results into a mail-merge database, and printing out mailing labels.

So, you might ask, why can’t they simply remove my address from their mail-merge database or mark it to be skipped?  Apparently, that would be too much work.

I contacted the City of Boston’s MIS department and asked for them to add some query rate limiting to the assessing database application.  They responded:

… we are required to provide Assessing and other residency data as public record to the general public. We have been also asked to provide various data and information to the public in an easy and transparent manner by various government watchdog entities.

Unlike other towns, we don’t post the entire database on the web to download and use it for commercial or any other purpose. However realtors, builders and other parties can acquire/buy data from City of Boston Assessing Department, Registry of Deeds, Sec of State – Massachusetts Land Records Office and create mailing lists.

In other words, “that would be too much work.”  Nothing they said precludes limiting the volume of queries from a particular IP address to prevent abuse of the database.  Such limits would in no way impede legitimate use of the data.

The city is probably loathe to change things because if they make it harder for real-estate agents to scrape the data from the Web site, they’ll have to return to the old days, when the agents had to go to City Hall and examine the records on paper, which required more staff, space, etc.

This might seem like a trivial issue, but it isn’t only about junk mail; it also threatens the safety and security of Boston residents.  For example, a predator searching for someone living at an unpublished address in Boston could easily use Google Maps to get a list of all street names in Boston, and then use those street names to automatically search every single street in Boston for the person he’s trying to find.

If you live in Boston and you’d rather not be bothered all the time by real-estate agents and others who use the city’s on Web site to build bulk-mailing lists, then I urge you to contact your city councilor and ask him or her to work with the assessing department to modify their database application to prevent abuse.

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