13 Casper Real Estate Agents Disciplined Over Misleading Advertising
This article has been updated with the most recent photo of Michael Houck's office.
Real estate agents with the Michael Houck Real Estate Team were subjected to a disciplinary action by the Wyoming Real Estate Commission.
According to a settlement agreement, Michael Houck's team of 13 members, including Houck, were all required to pay a $100 fine and take a four-hour marketing, advertising and social media compliance class.
A verified complaint, which was filed by five different brokers and salespersons, alleges that Houck and his team provided a list of names to Firepoint, an advertising agency, which then created misleading advertisements.
Specifically, the complaint alleges that when someone would search for one of 17 different real estate agents or two real estate companies, ads for that agent would redirect the user to Houck's website.
The verified complaint was sent on January 12, and Rebecca Zisch, executive director of the commission, said their investigator, Kamron Ritter, then followed up on the allegations.
Zisch, who has worked for the commission for six months, said usually one or two people are involved in complaints, but that it is uncommon for 13 people to be named in one complaint.
Julian Palm Cogdill and her husband, Lucas Cogdill, were both listed on the complaint.
Julian Cogdill said she and her husband have since completed the compliance class and that this was an "advertising mishap" and is being taken out of proportion.
Michael Houck said that his team "complied with all mitigation measures imposed by the Wyoming Real Estate Commission," and that nobody on his team was involved with the advertising issues.
Houck said that the marketing campaign created by Firepoint displayed ads when users would search for real estate keywords, however, the ads mistakenly left out firm identification information, which violated Wyoming Real Estate Commission policy.
The campaign lasted from December 30, 2020 to January 12, 2021 according to Houck, and was stopped once Houck learned about the ad error.
Steve Freel, one of the salespeople who filed the complaint, said he cannot say for sure he lost sales due to what Houck's group allegedly did, but that the people whose names redirected to Houck's website were real estate agents who were making a large number of sales.
"They're all the top agents too," Freel said. "There was nobody from the bottom of the list that was taken, so for anybody to say 'oh it was just a list of names that were given to them, we didn't tell them to do this', well somebody directed them and gave them a list of the top agents. They didn't take the people at the bottom who were not making any sales whatsoever, so they knew what they were doing."
Freel said "they" refers to whoever gave Firepoint a list of names to target in their advertising.
The complaint alleges in the fact-finding portion that an email dated December 23, 2020, forwarded December 30 to Firepoint employee Scott M, a PPC Specialist, included a list of "the other top 25 agents and top 10 firms we would like to target as well."
John Lichty, another real estate agent who filed the complaint against Houck's group, said he had an issue with someone using his identity.
"It isn't necessarily the monetary loss, but you know just someone using my identity to profit from it or to further their business, which was the reason for the complaint," Lichty said. "We just want to all operate on a fair playing field and treat each other as real estate agents the way we should, the golden rule, and that wasn't happening."
Lichty said the reason for the level of severity in terms of the disciplinary action was most likely because it was a first-time offense, and harsher punishments are given to actions that endanger the public.
According to Lichty, Alisha Collins, who is in the same office as Lichty and also was involved in filing the complaint, was the first to notice the ads in December of 2020, and that the group who filed the complaint also filed an ethics complaint sometime in February.
Lichty said there is supposed to be an ethics hearing in July.
The Wyoming Realtors would not comment on any case and that information regarding ethics complaints are confidential.
The National Association of Realtors lists a code of ethics that realtors across the country abide by, which includes reference to advertising.
Under standard of practice 12-10:
"REALTORS®’ obligation to present a true picture in their advertising and representations to the public includes Internet content, images, and the URLs and domain names they use, and prohibits REALTORS® from... deceptively using metatags, keywords or other devices/methods to direct, drive, or divert Internet traffic;"
Miranda Gilmette, an agent of Firepoint, said they are not able to share any private information on their clients.