A Tale of Fake MagicBricks Listings - and How Better Design Can Help
A few weeks ago I came across a property listing on Magicbricks - one that bordered between being too good to be true and just believable enough. And thus ensued my first experience with the world of fake listings and online fraud in the real estate market.
While I spend a good few sleepless nights pondering over how things could have been better - I also looked at what caused me to make the errors I made. And this, eventually, led me down a rabbit hole of how trust translates into an online world, how lack of transparency benefits large corporations and ultimately - what are we - and they - going to do about it?
If this synopsis is confusing, forgive me and have patience while I delve deep into the entire experience and how I reached the ultimate conclusion from there.
Long story short: In 2022, like many in the city I was a soon-to-be graduate looking to rent a place to stay. I found a listing on MagicBricks that seemed trustworthy and believable. The listing was tagged as "Partner Verified" with the images being tagged as "Verified". But a short interaction with the given number of the PG owner revealed the place to be a fraud and I found myself to be considerably poorer in terms of finance and intellect than previously thought.
(A similar complaint can be found here).
A little inquiry into this brought to light similar cases of many, many fake listings and financial frauds on the site. In fact, even the police officer I spoke to while lodging an FIR replied with "Magicbricks?" when I mentioned wanting to register an online house-hunting-related scam.
I understand Magicbricks works solely as a listing site, and any issues with transactions are not the company's liability. However, they can be held accountable for the verified listings on their site.
So, keeping other issues aside, I took the followings steps:
I mailed customer service about the fake listing, provided evidence and asked for the person and the listing to be blacklisted from the site. Over a span of 10 days, I wrote 3 emails and received a variety of responses, none of which actually addressed the issue and blocked the property. The emails claimed:
They are aware of the rise in the number of fraudsters, and have taken 2 steps - posted an advisory on their portal and a social media post.
Claimed there was some access issue (I do not understand this) and said someone else's number was sent. No resolution was sent for this.
In 2 separate emails, they claimed that the fraudster has been blocked, but the link is still active and no action is being taken.
Claimed that writing a review on the site would help them take action. I have written 2, which were screened but no action has been taken.
2 weeks later, the issue remains open and while they claim to have blocked the person, his number and listing are still accessible. Multiple real estate websites often list the same properties. However, this particular property was only listed on Magicbricks. This led me to question:
Is the problem with MagicBrick's inherent listing process? Is it easier for fraudsters to open an account and post here?
Moreover, I later found out multiple complaints registered by various people against THIS EXACT listing on the Indian Consumer Complaints Forum.
In both cases, Magicbricks was notified but no action was taken. Had prompt action been taken, I would have never faced this situation at a later date in June. And now, as the property is still not blacklisted, someone else might face the same fate.
So, such matters remain unresolved and unchecked due to the poor quality customer service Magicbricks offers.
There was only one way to check out the real culprit: roleplay.
What Went Wrong?
In 2012, Housing.com introduced a new method of removing fake listings. They committed to this by sending their own agents on site to capture pictures, confirm all data points and put up a "Verified" tag on those properties.
In fact, surfing the world from our tiny screens, many of us have put faith in this system of tags and badges.
We believe it when we see a tiny blue tick against a name, we believe it when Swiggy tells us this restaurant passes hygiene standards. This assurance of trust is very important for new businesses to be able to carry out their work online. In fact, tags and rating systems such as these have made it possible for honest, new businesses to flourish online. And it is this trust that businesses struggle to build and hold onto.
So, why did I put my trust into a random listing on a screen? In the online world, I held on to what passes for trust - tags.
The property I had shortlisted, had:
1. The Partner Verified tag, which according to MagicBrick's own site means: "Properties with 'Magicbricks Verified' tag are physically verified by our team of executives. The executives visit the property location & verify the details given by the advertiser."
Below is an image of the listing with its verified tag, and the link.
How to get your site verified? Again, according to MagicBricks: you have to get an exclusive package which includes a photo shoot and an agent will visit and do the rest. It seems like it's hard to bypass - but clearly manageable as it's been done.
2. Secondly, the images of the listing too came with the "Verified" tag.
I do not know how a property that does not exist, can be verified. However, it is interesting to note that this PG does not feature on Housing or 99acres or NoBroker. What made MagicBricks a susceptible target? Is their screening process more conducive to fraud?
I have found more complaints online where such tagged property owners turn out to be scammers. And throughout my entire research into this issue, I was not able to find out how they do it.
3. Furthermore, during my conversation with the "PG owner", he sent me a video of the PG room, and his own Aadhar and Driver's license. I presume the same was used to create his own MagicBricks account and update it for the verified tag.
In hindsight, that does not prove any authenticity. This could easily happen in case someone loses a wallet with personal documents inside. For sites that only ask for documents as verification, these can be easily used to create fake accounts and circumvent common online security procedures. There ARE cases where scammers have used lost Aadhar cards to build trust (So it seems someone readily sending you their proof of identity is also a red flag🚩). How do build a system that can stand up against this?
The Magicbricks Listing Process - And Why It Needs An Update
So, here we have someone who has circumvented the conventional security measures put into place. The first task, of course, was to know what these measures were. So, I went about creating my own listing on MagicBricks!
The Listing Process - or - How I Listed A Fake Prime Property Under 24 Hours
To understand the verification that a property listing goes through, I tried to create my own account using as little authentic information as possible.
1. I logged in using a throwaway email account and did not provide any personal details or documentation.
2. I enlisted a free fake property. You can do this on MagicBricks using their simple, 3 step process for listing your property. The wizard is simple and brilliant. You are only asked for information in small chunks and within minutes - you have created an ad! There are hordes of additional details that can be added later. The process is non-overwhelming, smooth and exceptionally fast.
3. The next stage involved the addition of pictures and other site data. I sourced images from Wikimedia Commons and other images with a Creative Commons License. The listing underwent a 24 hours screening process. I was not asked for any other identification during this time or any verification that I actually owned the property.
4. During the image screening, a few images were rejected for having humans in them. They were not subjected to any verification regarding authenticity. The completely fake listing went live and was branded as a MagicBricks Prime property (free upgrade for first-time poster). It is also listed as an exclusive owner property (again, not verified). Very lucrative!
5. According to my dash, the property was displayed to only 25% of the viewers and locked from the rest, unless I bought a package to find more tenants.
To conclude, Magicbricks' screening process to post a listing was: nothing. none. zero. nada. To get it verified, one could separately ask for a Home Inspection package.
Viewing from the Other End
When I viewed my property as a potential tenant, I found it had been listed as an exclusive MB Prime property and not accessible unless I bought a tenant package.
So, you're basically buying a package to go through apparently vetted properties that are "top of their class". But in reality, you're looking at properties whose owners (like me) have chosen to not get any paid packages (and have restricted viewership due to this). That's how the 25%-tenants-seen tag also comes into place.
A property with a paid package must have higher viewership (a site claim), hence it can longer be hidden behind the Prime paywall.
Hiding free listings from either end, under a tag, while allowing the user to believe they are missing out on something - is an efficient way to play up the numbers on both sides. However, suppose you were to get an MB Prime membership, all you would get would be the sadly fake listing by me :(
If you look at their terms and conditions, MB Premium does not promise verified properties - only more properties. This lack of transparency only benefits one party here: them.
This is of course an oversimplification of the entire complex method they surely follow to display listings. But it does seem that the entire UX and package model could do with a revamp.
This upside-down model could be the basis for the hundreds of complaints on consumer forums, where buying the packages has also resulted in no good for many users. And why not? When quality control for Prime listings is neigh.
So, basically, my understanding of what the system is this:
Beyond this, several problems exist such as dissatisfactory customer service. Overall, the company is slow to respond to complaints, as seen by its overall rating on the Indian Consumer Complaints Forum.
However, I do not want one to think that this slow response and fake listings are something to be simply accepted from a site with huge traffic. Other similar service sites like NoBroker perform much better and have a higher percentage of resolutions on forums. So, Magicbricks could do it if they wanted...
But as a designer, I wondered if at the core of it, a better design - of the service and the site - could help avoid experiences like mine. Of course, a non-responsive staff is not something I could provide solutions for. But the entire process of onboarding, listing and transacting could be improved.
What's The Solution?
More Streamlined Onboarding Process
Magicbrick's need to make the boarding process easy and enticing is understandable. However, speed cannot come at the expense of trust. Today, volume is always taken as a factor for trust. Notifications like "1,246 new homes registered today" are shoved down our throats. The scheme of hiding (non-verified) homes behind a paywall (just to show that yes, as an MB Prime member we have more for you in-store) are yet another way Magicbricks is currently working with big numbers as an advertising strategy.
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari describes the existence of brands as a way for people to come together under an umbrella of trust. When I order from Swiggy, I trust that the restaurant exists and that my food will be delivered after payment.
Otherwise, what really distinguishes a business like this from a newspaper clipping? Before the internet, would you even consider paying a random place for food via a bank transfer and 100% expect them to deliver the food to your home? Hence, quality over quantity. A more streamlined onboarding process or one that introduces a checkpoint of document verification before actually going ahead certainly makes more sense.
A New UX Model
From most consumer forums, it seems there are some common problems people with paid packages face:
The lack of transparency with the package system - The initial package price only reveals a few things and people consecutively need to keep paying more to access more. While a common method, the difference can be up to 3 times what was initially paid.
Lack of quality tenants and homes after buying packages - The entire paywall system is not verified or backed by quality checking. There is a huge number of listings on the site, however, responses and verified listings are low, which brings us to the next point.
Both of these problems could be the result of a model that does not consider the appropriate factors when creating a paywall.
Supply versus Demand
Upwork - is a freelancing website that strictly curates its crowd. When I signed up for an Upwork account, there were 2 types of security barriers apart from document submissions:
The company would match my skillset against their existing base of freelancers and clients to determine if such a skill was indeed required. This way the site protects and keeps its talent and work rate at a high.
An in-person video check-in during which my personal documents were verified. This took around 2 minutes.
MagicBricks lists itself as India's no. 1 Property and as of June 2022, has 1,307 employees. Upwork has 540. I do not have any experience in running a business but it seems like no. 2 is highly plausible for a company under the Times group. In fact, this would even remove cases where a stolen document is used to commit identity theft.
A Different Business Model Altogether
Another would be to expand from being simply a listing site to one to handle transactions as well. By allowing transactions to happen through the site - such as OhMyHome. Of course, once money comes into the picture, verification would become a natural part of the process and perhaps reduce fake listings.
MagicBrick's current business model of charging both tenants and owners is very similar to India's traditional method of brokers charging both for finding homes (with no guarantee). However, the whole purpose of introducing an online site was to remove the middle man (broker/ site-that-charges-like-a-broker) altogether. Other real estate websites like Zillow on the other hand, do not charge the buyers or sellers but are driven by advertising fees from agents and lenders.
Right now, Magcbricks does allow one to pay rent through the site, or download lease agreements. But these are individual forms one can generate and are not associated WITH the listings on the site. Home inspection packages are also available separately, whereas they should be available on the dashboard itself when one creates a property listing.
Why is this not so? Why is Magicbricks not associating the listing with the entire payment process? Again, the answer is - not wanting to take liability.
For all these on-site rent payments too, their terms and conditions mention that "Magicbricks Realty Services Limited ("Company") is an online portal and acts only as a facilitator between tenant and landlord" and thus, "User shall be responsible to check and verify the landlord's details including name, mobile number etc. before making payment of rent on Company's portal." So really, the only benefit of paying through this portal is...I guess, the cashback?
Again, taking the example of Swiggy - does one first verify while making a UPI payment if the given code is actually of the chosen restaurant? Is this up to us or Swiggy?
A Better Design for MagicBricks
As a user, there is much I would like to be changed regarding MagicBricks' interface. Some transparency regarding their listing method and tags would also help. This article was written with whatever information I could find online and while using the platform as a free user.
Despite multiple emails asking for clarity about their verification process, the service team did not reply and hence, I could not get to the bottom of it.
There still remain some questions, like:
When signing up for a package, are the personal documents verified against any list of lost documents? If someone uses another person's lost Aadhar card (which the former has filed a complaint about), will it be caught in the system? Does document verification occur at ANY stage?
The question of how a property that does not exist got verified baffles me. Unless the agent never actually went on-site - in which case, the "Verified" tag loses all meaning - a gross loss of trust.
Why is the through-site payment system available but not integrated with the listings?
With a large number of complaints regarding fake Magicbricks listings, one might wonder why the company won't take a stand and filter them out.
How can fake listings benefit the company at large? Again - it's the game of numbers!
More leads generate more traffic. To get owner/ contact information one needs to provide their own information. Once the site has this, they can set their agents to work to offer genuine leads. At the same time, it allows them to charge more for the "verified" tag. These listings are now an integral part of how brokers and real estate businesses work in India.
While I discussed multiple issues in the article beginning with fake listings, what I really eventually want to focus on is - make designs user-centric! Using volume as a substitute for quality is simply tiresome for a user. It also makes one question what a company's goal is. Is it simply to earn money? Or to provide a service?
Websites like Zillow offer the same service with higher satisfaction and are known to remove fake listings on the same day.
I'm tired of large corporations trying to rip people off and providing less at the cost of more! I am tired of capitalism making things more complex than it is and charging us for making them simpler! I am tired of going in circles around websites designed with business profit and cutthroat marketing in mind instead of the half-tech-savvy person trying to navigate it!
In a lot of ways, it feels like Magicbricks' understanding of their user base and the type of transactions that go along with it, is lacking. This is even confirmed by their advisories on social media and their forum which only talk about QR code scams.
When there are various other types of scams and fake listings rampant, which are being willfully ignored (renters asking for security deposits, calls posing to be MB agents, etc) as they also implicate Magicbricks' incompetent service!
Bottom line - design can help, but it needs honest, sincere minds to implement it. The least one could expect after this entire ordeal, is that the link and associated account would be blacklisted. And Magicbricks does not even scrape the bottomline.
That's it, folks. I think the best part about having your own blog is being able to rant :)