Here’s how real estate agents can manipulate listings. And here’s what’s in place to stop them

By using a broker’s code in the MLS, agents can edit fields like a property’s folio number

(Credit: iStock)
(Credit: iStock)

Manipulating the Multiple Listing Service has been the talk of the industry ever since a soap-opera case involving the Jills came to light this summer. But gaming the system isn’t just restricted to one of the most famous brokerage teams in the country. With just a few steps, an agent can distort listing information to make a buyer believe a listing is fresher, or hide it altogether, a review by The Real Deal found.

In August, agent Kevin Tomlinson was sentenced to extended probation for attempting to extort Coldwell Banker’s Jill Hertzberg and Jill Eber. Tomlinson had discovered that the Jills had manipulated MLS data by hiding multimillion-dollar homes that had been sitting on the market for months, giving off the impression that listings they took on sold much faster than they actually did. During the trial, the Jills put the blame on an employee in their office, saying they weren’t aware of how he was keeping properties “off the hot sheet.”

At the time, many agents questioned how the Jills were able to hide listings, but now “everybody knows how to do this,” brokers have said. Manipulating the MLS can distort home appraisal amounts, mortgages and comparable sales, and paint a faulty impression of how the market is doing.

It’s not only easy to alter property data on the platform, the system of checks and balances to prevent it from happening is not fully reliable, brokers say.

You might, for example, be looking on for a Coconut Grove condo, but a unit meeting your specifications is actually located in North Miami Beach.

That means a property identifier in the listing has been changed, possibly by an agent with broker-level access. But many agents don’t have access to edit listings on the MLS, with their brokerages delegating the task to office managers who have administrative assistants input them. Others, like some flat-fee brokerages, give their realtors full access.

If an agent does have access to create and edit listings, it wouldn’t take much to hide one. To obscure a property that’s been on the market for a long time, an agent could change the zip code – putting a property in another city, let’s say – or change the legal description, subdivision number, parcel number, coordinates or other identifiers. Those fields could be changed to zeroes, or an agent could add spaces that aren’t supposed to be there.

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The Miami Association of Realtors (MAR), like others across the country, uses the iCheck program to catch errors in the MLS. The system runs automatically, scanning the MLS for incorrect information, incorrect photos, typos and fields that weren’t entered, said Deborah Boza-Valledor, the association’s COO and chief marketing officer.

“There are some brokerages that the agents do not have add/edit capabilities and they have admin assistants who do, and other companies that the agents are given full add/edit capability themselves,” Boza-Valledor said. In the case of the Jills, they were able to edit their listings beyond the standard ability to add photographs, property descriptions and attached documents.

At EWM Realty International, “the agent doesn’t do any of that with the MLS. The manager is the ultimate person at each office who is responsible for that,” said Ron Shuffield, CEO of the firm.

EWM has a listing coordinator submit new listings at each of its 10 offices, and an office manager has to approve any changes to them once they’re live. “We just want to maintain the integrity of our files,” Shuffield said.

Whoever is entering the listing has the option to auto-populate information from the property appraiser’s office, or manually enter every field. The process of entering a listing can be tedious: a PDF version totals 11 pages, calling for the legal description, design, construction type, parking and more. And some industry insiders say that the “archaic” software encourages errors.

The iCheck system sends the errors to MAR, which then sends a notification to the agent, giving them two days to to correct the error.

“It’s far from foolproof,” said Peter Zalewski, a principal with the Miami real estate consultancy Condo Vultures. “If anything, it encourages foolishness.”