Technology

Identity of Zillow whistleblower letter scribe revealed

Chris Crocker was portal giant's vice president of strategic partnerships

The whistleblower who alleged Zillow steals data from agent websites and scrapes from realtor.com in an unsigned letter is anonymous no more: He is Chris Crocker, Zillow’s now former vice president of strategic partnerships.

Chris Crocker

Chris Crocker

That’s according to court filings filed today by Zillow rival Move Inc. and the National Association of Realtors in a lawsuit accusing Zillow of misappropriation of trade secrets and unjust enrichment, among other claims.

Crocker joined Zillow in December 2012 and recently left the company, according to his LinkedIn profile. At the time he was hired, Zillow said Crocker, a former regional vice president at Realogy’s NRT, would focus on cultivating relationships with brokerages and help with product development.

Crocker did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Zillow emailed a brief statement: “We have not publicly identified an author of the letter. Beyond that, we have no comment.”

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Zillow did not publicly identify Crocker, but did include his name in a legal filing submitted to an officer of the court earlier this week. Move Inc., a subsidiary of News Corp., filed the document publicly today.

“Zillow has a good faith basis to believe that the letter was authored by Zillow employee Chris Crocker,” Zillow’s attorneys said in the filing.

“Mr. Crocker was advised that he was being terminated earlier this year but was provided two months to find a new position prior to formal separation. The letter was received two business days before Mr. Crocker’s last day at Zillow.

“Mr. Crocker was one of only a few individuals with knowledge of some of the information contained in the letter.”

Moreover, Zillow’s attorneys said the anonymous letter showed signs of Crocker’s authorship, including what the company called his “trademark” signoff: “Good hunting.”

Earlier this week, Zillow filed a motion to strike the letter from consideration by the court. Today, Move filed an opposition to that motion, saying that because Zillow itself has authenticated the letter by naming its author, the letter is not “hearsay,” as claimed by Zillow. (Scroll down to see the motion to strike and the opposition.)

Move’s attorneys added that the specific details included in the letter itself point to a Zillow employee.

“The extensive detail in the whistleblower letter, with employee names, details of the misdeeds, identification of the stolen databases, dates of particular events, and the recitation of facts only an employee would know are more than sufficient detail to give the letter credibility — certainly enough to reject Zillow’s arguments otherwise,” they said.

The letter itself may be a cause for further litigation. Zillow’s filing called for an emergency order to compel Move to preserve the letter and its envelope; to refrain from touching the letter and the envelope to minimize contamination of forensic evidence such as fingerprints; to preserve all communications related to the letter; and to preserve all communications, materials and documents relating to or with Crocker.

“The letter itself is now evidence, not only in this litigation, but potentially in other litigation,” Zillow’s attorneys said.

“A thorough investigation is needed to determine whether and to what extent plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ counsel conspired with the author of the letter to reveal and misappropriate Zillow’s confidential and trade secret information, and to libel Zillow.”

Even if Move did not overtly coordinate with the letter writer, Zillow called for an investigation to determine whether Move or its attorneys “pushed forward in a haphazard, negligent and unethical manner” by publicizing the letter when it contained “highly confidential (as well as false, misleading and libelous) information about Zillow’s business practices.”

Move declined to comment for this story.

The letter reveals “confidential processes” known to only about 20 Zillow employees, according to the filing.

“For example, the letter details (rather inaccurately) a program Zillow developed, and relies on to this day, which helps Zillow improve the accuracy of the millions of listings on its website,” the filing said.

“The letter also describes certain proprietary software code Zillow authored, and relies on to this day, to help it ensure the accuracy of its listings.

“While much of the letter is false, some of it details confidential information and trade secrets related to Zillow’s evaluation of strategies related to obtaining listings, and ensuring the accuracy of those listings.”

4/16/2015 – Zillow’s motion to strike whistleblower letter

4/16/15 – Move Inc.’s objection to Zillow’s move to strike whistleblower letter

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

Email Andrea V. Brambila.