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Published: Sunday, 7/30/2006

Web sites can tell you a lot about your neighbors

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Ronald Martin had a hunch that Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise might be moving in across the street.

That's what all the gossip in town was saying.

But he didn't buy a copy of the National Enquirer or pull out a set of binoculars to find out more. He hit the Internet.

On the Lucas County Auditor's Web site's real estate section, he found a smorgasbord of information: photos of the house, the sale price and taxes, even some information about the new owners.

"I wanted to investigate who really owned the house," he said. "No one really knows who lives there."

His snooping didn't solve the mystery - despite rampant rumors, another couple's name pops up as the owners of the Ridgewood Road mansion in Ottawa Hills (and it's not Brangelina) - but the Web site was a start.

"I just think it's cool," he said.

Millions of others do too.

Curious Web surfers have long been Googling their exes, blind dates, and co-workers, but there are other free sites out there to tempt the inner snoop in each of us.

The county data that Mr. Martin mined had more than 25,000 unique visitors in June. And Zillow.com, which offers home values and aerial photos of houses across the nation, had more than 2 million unique visitors last month, according to comScore Media Metrix, an Internet market research firm.

The fact that some of these users visit the sites to quietly satisfy their prurient interests about neighbors or friends can be off-putting to some.

"Personally, I believe it's rude," said Jill Marie Zachman, an etiquette teacher in Waterville whose business is called First Impressions.

"I believe the Internet gives us so much freedom to do things in secret that we would not do in open," she continued. "I kind of feel, if I would not feel comfortable asking these people a question, I'm not going to look it up on the Internet."

Still, many don't let such reservations stop them.

A survey by Zillow, based in Seattle, shows that most users are looking up their own homes or those they're thinking of buying, but some undoubtedly are checking out friends, bosses, and others just for fun.

"We kind of knew that people were probably gonna do that," said spokesman Amanda Hoffman. "Even if they are just doing that for a snoop factor now, we hope that they'll come back."

Ms. Hoffman has done it herself, pulling up the values of homes she used to live in to see what they're worth now.

"Sure, I've used it out of curiosity," she said.

Who hasn't?

"It's getting so well known that people use it almost like the phone book," said Jerry German, director of real estate for the Lucas County auditor. "They just call [the auditor's Web site] up and say I wonder who lives in that house."

He's met people at parties who have brought up the site.

"They say it's just entertaining," he said.

As an auctioneer with Pamela Rose Auction Company, Michael Murray knows how useful this kind of real estate information can be. As a single guy, he has, well, a different appreciation for it.

"If I meet a woman, I'll look up her house," he said. "Houses are like an extension of someone's personality."

So noting the color of the house, the neighborhood - all those things can tell him something about a woman.

"I'm a very curious person," said Mr. Murray, 61, of Wauseon.

Sara and Ricky Stevens, of Toledo, check on neighbors, friends, and family members, and their searches have turned up surprising information.

Even so, the couple recognizes the pitfalls of having so much information at the world's fingertips.

"It can be quite frightening actually," Mrs. Stevens said.

The Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington shares her concerns.

"Generally speaking, I think that we are a little unsettled by the ease with which almost anybody can obtain personal information on almost anybody else who is using the Internet with any regularity," said spokesman David McGuire.

In some disturbing cases, it can lead to cyberstalking or worse.

"It happens," said Lt. Mel Stachura, who is in charge of the technical crimes section of the Toledo Police Department. "The Internet, it's a wealth of information, but it's also a pothole full of problems."

Kristen Fowler, who has been known to Google an old friend or two, admits it can make you a little paranoid, especially with the fear of identify theft lingering out there.

But if a neighbor or an acquaintance wants to check out the local woman's house online? She can live with that.

"If they want to know how many square feet my house is, so what? That doesn't bother me," she said. "I kind of consider those people as having way too much time on their hands if they're worrying about whether or not my basement is finished."

Contact Ryan E. Smith at: ryansmith@theblade.com or 419-724-6103.



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