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Zillow making foreclosure information too accessible?

No family wants to face foreclosure. It’s frightening, costly and embarrassing.

But what if your neighbors knew that your home had fallen into foreclosure before it even goes up for sale? How would that make you feel?

Thanks to online real estate site Zillow, this could happen.

The Chicago Tribune recently reported on Zillow’s plans to show detailed information on about 1.5 million homes across the country that are in foreclosure but not yet for sale. According to the Tribune, Zillow hopes that the move will position the Web site as the go-to source of information for home buyers.

As the Tribune writes, this foreclosure information is already public information. But accessing it now is no easy task. Consumers usually must buy a subscription to a Web site or make trips to county courthouses to plow through piles of case records.

In other words, most people won’t bother. But when Zillow puts this information clearly on its Web site, they will. In fact, I’d bet that even people not interested in buying a foreclosed home might take a peek online to see if any of their neighbors are in financial trouble.

Zillow added this information to its Web site earlier in October. According to the Tribune story, Zillow’s site instantly included 11,000 pre-market — homes in foreclosure but not yet listed for sale — condominiums and single-family homes in Chicago.

Zillow officials say that this information can give home buyers a heads-up on what Chicago-area homes might soon hit the market. Other buyers might use the information to make an offer to the owners of homes that have fallen into foreclosure, Zillow officials added.

There is a major bug with this, though. RealtyTrac, an online foreclosure site, is quoted in the Tribune story as saying that it takes an average of nearly two years to foreclose on a home in the Chicago area. A home listed in Zillow’s pre-market section, then, might stay there for a long time.

The Tribune also quotes critics who worry that owners of homes that have fallen into foreclosure may receive low-ball offers or be targeted for mortgage scams once that information becomes readily available to the public.

As the executive director of the DuPage Homeownership Center is quoted as saying, “This just seems much too easy for predators.”

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