Thousands of listings hit by ‘abortion pill’ spam

Problem traced to platform used by 160 MLSs

Spammers who managed to insert language advertising abortion pills into descriptions accompanying thousands of for-sale listings got even better exposure when the listings were distributed to real estate websites including Zillow, Trulia and realtor.com.

The affected listings apparently originated from a multiple listing service platform, Systems Engineering Inc.’s Navica Revolution MLS, used by about 160 MLSs representing 40,000 subscribers nationwide, according to a recent Clareity survey.

Realtor.com screen shot on July 14, 2014
Realtor.com screen shot on July 14, 2014

It’s unclear at which point in the process of entering or distributing the listings that security was breached, but the problem appeared to be widespread. Inman News found affected listings from Texas, Virginia, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

The motivation behind the spam attack is unknown. Sometimes listing descriptions merely contained the words “abortion pill” and in other cases a URL also pointed viewers to a nearly blank Web page with the word “HEALTHY” appearing on the left-hand side.

SEI President Paula Payne declined comment, other than to say that the company was still gathering information.

Trulia told Inman News it had identified and removed 2,653 listings that contained the “abortion pill” spam this morning.

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“Trulia has several tools that help us identify and address data issues in listing feeds, including tight filters that block spam and fraudulent activity. We work together with our partners to ensure the best-quality listings are available on Trulia,” the company said in an emailed statement.

The company said it would reinstate the affected listings once the the spam content was removed at the source, and in the meantime, unaffected listings would be processed normally.

Trulia screen shot earlier today. This listing page has been now been pulled down.

Trulia screen shot earlier today. This listing page has been now been pulled down.

Zillow said SEI was aware of the issue and taking steps to correct it. In the meantime, Zillow has taken down at least one affected listing, though others remain.

Zillow screen shot on July 14, 2014

Zillow screen shot on July 14, 2014

Realtor.com operator Move Inc. said it was looking into the issue, but did not offer further comment before publication time.

At about 7 a.m. today, Rocktown Realty agent Lisa Hensley received an email from a client noting that his property was being advertised on Zillow with a listing description promoting abortion pills.

“It’s so ridiculous. I don’t even understand what the purpose of doing something like that would be,” Hensley said. “You would think they would put something … with a little more punch rather than about abortion pills.”

She said her client was “very good-natured” about it. “He understood that someone had hacked into the system,” she said.

Five of her 13 listings have been affected on Zillow and Trulia, she said, but she hopes that none of her other clients notice before the problem is fixed. She said she had not checked whether her listings on realtor.com had been affected, but that her Internet Data Exchange (IDX) website was fine.

Hensley belongs to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Association of Realtors’ MLS, which has about 350 members.

Bob Hill, the association’s CEO, said the problem had been fixed within the Navica MLS platform where listing agents can see their own remarks, but that the syndication feeds that SEI sends out for the Harrisonburg MLS are refreshed every 24 hours and would be refreshed tonight.

He was not aware of how many listings were affected, but said that as far as he could tell it was “just random” listings that were hit. He said that when he called SEI this morning, the company was unaware of the issue.

He said he did not know whether the platform had anti-spam software installed, but that “since we’ve been with Navica for 19 years and this is the first time it’s happened, my assumption is that they have pretty good systems in place for preventing it.”


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