Unsolicited text messages asking you if you own, are related to, or want to sell a home have become the newest, and for many, the most irritating form of spam.
Spam traditionally meant unsolicited pamphlets for products shoved into your mailbox and this form of advertising eventually migrated to e-mails. However, “robotexts,” as they are called by the Federal Communications Commission, are on the rise and — unlike emails — much harder to ignore.
According to the spam-blocking company RoboKiller, Americans received 14.3 billion spam texts last month. The company reported that spam texts reached a peak in 2022 during the month of December when they hit over 55 billion. By comparison, the company’s estimated spam texts numbered 88 billion for the entire year of 2021.
It is unclear which portion of those are regarding real estate, but when the Journal Sentinel asked Milwaukee Redditors, they made it clear they were fed up with receiving the messages.
We asked realtor Mary Beth Gaspar-Waite, the owner of Cornerstone Realty and a veteran realtor, why people are receiving these messages and what their presence says about the state of the real estate market.
Why are these messages being sent?
Gaspar-Waite said the spam texts are a sign of scarcity in the housing market. Last year was particularly difficult for Cornerstone because many of their clients were locals who had left and wanted to return to Wisconsin but were struggling to find housing for sale.
“It has been excruciatingly challenging for our agents right now,” she said. “The agents are just so frustrated because we are literally going door to door to try to convince people to sell their houses so we can find homes for men and women relocating to the community with their families.”
Gaspar-Waite came to Milwaukee in 2002. Before that, he had been a realtor in New York for five years when the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred; she said the current selling environment was even worse than what it was in New York in the aftermath of the attacks.
“I had a lady from Fort Lee, New Jersey, and she said to me, ‘where are you hiding your real estate?’” she said.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it in the city. ever.”
Who are the people behind these texts?
The people behind the text messages can vary.
Wholesalers work as intermediaries between sellers and buyers. They buy a seller’s contract for their home and sell it to a buyer; they make a profit from finding the buyer, which motivates them to do so quickly and why they may use companies that spam text lists of phone numbers
Usually, wholesalers target the owners of distressed properties and offer to quickly sell them. Similarly, homebuying companies, such as We Buy Ugly Houses, specialize in flipping distressed properties. Those companies cast a wide net with spam texts to find the owners of distressed properties looking to get rid of them quickly.
Sometimes realtors may struggle to find available homes to sell or may work on behalf of buyers who are having trouble finding available properties. These realtors might hire companies that distribute spam texts.
Other real estate companies that use spam texts can do so as “iBuyers.” These companies use technology to make estimates of a home’s value and submit an automatic offer.
And finally, some of the people behind the texts are scammers who mimic the style of legitimate real estate professionals to solicit people’s private information. It can be very difficult to tell the difference, but it is best to be wary of messages soliciting personal information or money to help refinance or guarantee a property.
How did they get my number?
The real estate professionals — or in some cases, scammers — behind spam texts typically use data brokers who provide them with call lists.
Data brokers, much like public records companies, specialize in gathering personal information from people through tax documents, court records, social media and other sources. However, these brokers can be hired to identify entire subsets of the population, such as likely homeowners, instead of just one person.
Real estate professionals and/or companies then send text messages to those subsets with the use of SMS bulk messaging, an automated system that texts a list of phone numbers. Depending on how sophisticated the automation is, the messages can even be personalized with the name attached to a phone number and specific addresses.
Some smaller firms may use an ad tech agency to help them target the right residents.
But these methods are not perfect.
Less sophisticated data brokers may provide real estate professionals with less reliable information. That’s why you may receive these messages even though you don’t own a home or have no relation to the address mentioned.
Why do they want my house?
According to Gaspar-Waite, you shouldn’t take the spam personally — these real estate professionals want any house that may come on the market, and they reach out with this method to get ahead of the competition.
Due to out-of-state investors taking an interest in Milwaukee and buying up properties, Gaspar-Waite said single-family homes and duplexes for sale are becoming harder to find. In addition, because so many real estate deals occur in private sales or package deals (when multiple properties are sold at once), the amount of housing available for sale to the average resident has dwindled significantly, he said.
Most of those private sales are conducted without the seller ever posting it to a public database meant to help connect buyers and sellers, also called a Multiple Listing Service (or MLS) such as Redfin.
“In some cases, sellers like the idea of moving property without moving it to the MLS because they don’t have the exposure, and some buyers are willing to pay a premium for what’s not on the market,” she explained.
As a result, real estate professionals in the wholesale or even realtor line of work use these text blasts to find opportunities that investors may have missed.
Does this ever work?
For many real estate professionals who use this method to find real estate, it’s a numbers game. Similar to cold callers or scammers, they don’t expect to make clients from a significant percentage of the people texted.
However, it is a low-risk and fairly low-effort way to contact a large number of people who may be interested in selling their home.
Many data brokers and ad tech agencies have fairly detailed and sophisticated databases, they can cross reference to identify areas where people may be the most likely to sell. For example, they can identify areas with sudden increases in property value, a large population of seniors and/or where other homes are being sold at a high rate.
This type of targeting is more likely to be successful.
Can I get them to stop?
You might think replying “No” or “stop,” as the message directs, may be the answer, but it’s not that simple. Some text messaging websites use your reply to verify that your number is active — then resell it to other data brokers who will spam you more.
Although replying “stop” may not help, there are some things you can do.
You can forward the message to 7726 (SPAM), a universal reporting system that alerts carriers of spam and phishing text messages. According to the Federal Trade Commission, reporting them helps the carrier recognize and block future spam attempts.
You can also use text blocker apps, such as RoboKiller, SMS Shield, Avast One, TextKiller and Truecaller. Some of these are Android- or iPhone-specific options and most of them require a subscription of some kind.
You can also reach out to your phone carrier to see if they offer spam-blocking technology.
How can I keep my data safer from data brokers?
Since spammers often get your number from data brokers who use automated data-gathering methods to build their databases, you can also reduce your likelihood of receiving spam texts by reducing access to your private information.
Regular habits to reduce access to your private information include:
Keeping your social media accounts private
Not disclosing information that may be used to verify your identity, such as your birth date
Using web browsers that block trackers and ads
Allowing the least amount of cookies on a website
Not downloading apps from untrustworthy locations
Not participating in online quizzes or contests
You can also pay a company such as DeleteMe to find and keep your data private.
Finally, you can try to do this yourself. PrivacyRights.org has a list of data brokers and their email addresses. Safety experts suggest using a secondary email and requesting they remove you from their database. You can also use a company to scan the internet for your specific data and contact the identified data brokers.
Talis Shelbourne is an investigative solutions reporter covering the issues of affordable housing and lead poisoning. Have a tip? You can reach Talis at (414) 403-6651 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @talisseer and message her on Facebook at @talisseer.
Need more help with housing questions? The Milwaukee Resource Guide is here to help. Have something you want answered? Submit a question.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Getting spam texts to sell your home? Here’s what you can do about it.