The FBI operates a website dedicated specifically to internet crime. Image: FBI.gov
September is REALTOR® Safety Month! This is the second of two articles covering safety issues of particular interest to RMLS™ subscribers.
Remember the days when frauds and scams were easier to recognize and seemed like the type of things “other people” had to worry about? Technological advances have brought plenty of new tools, devices, and apps to improve organization and efficiency. Unfortunately the sophistication and prevalence of frauds and scams has advanced just as quickly.
At any time, there are a number of common frauds and scams circulating both locally and globally. It used to be simpler to detect email scams, whether by blatantly odd email addresses or oddly conjugated messages—but former red flags are getting more difficult to detect, as scammers’ methods are continuously gaining sophistication. Here are a few red flags to look for.
Emails regarding wire transfers or containing wire transfer information: RED FLAG
Double and triple check your contact’s email address. Hackers will often observe email correspondence discussing wire transfers, then intercept the communication, posing as your contact. They imitate the language used in previous correspondence and include wire transfer information funneling into a fraudulent account. Often, the account is emptied and closed as soon as the wire transfer has occurred.
What to look for
Check the email address and carefully confirm its validity. For example, if you are expecting an email from firstname.lastname@example.org, notice possible imposter email addresses:
Each of the above addresses vary from the first with a single, minor change. The replacement may replace the letter “L” with the number 1 or add an inconspicuous dot—but at first glance they all look very similar to the original address.
Emails requesting last-minute changes to wire transfers or monetary exchanges: RED FLAG
What to do
Check and double check your contact’s email address. Call your contact on the phone to confirm that details and changes are legitimate. Be alert and trust your instincts if something feels off.
The National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) has a great article addressing sophisticated email scams and damage control.
Attachments or suspicious links: RED FLAG
There are a significant measure of viruses spread via email attachments and links. When opened, the virus wreaks havoc on devices and confidential information. In some cases, the attachments can be sent from a familiar email address that has been hacked.
What to do
Stay alert and look out for oddities. Were you expecting the attachment or link? Confirm with your contact that they sent an attachment or link intentionally—sometimes this is how people discover they’ve been hacked in the first place.
DocuSign recently experienced fraudulent activity which the Oregon Association of REALTORS® addresses here.
Another challenge to the local market is the Craigslist scam where photos of listed homes on the market are scraped and posted on Craigslist as being up for rent. Craigslist has quite a bit of information detailing what to do in these situations.
Your electronic safety can be greatly enhanced by an established data security plan, including best electronic practices, damage control, and reporting tools. Below are a few best practices for cyber safety:
- If sending an email with monetary transaction information, utilize encryption services whenever possible.
- Be wary of messages from unverified accounts and avoid including sensitive information to these accounts.
- Do not reply to suspicious accounts and never open attachments or links from suspicious accounts.
- Utilize strong passwords and change them regularly.
- Utilize secure networks when conducting business online.
- Stay up-to-date on software, anti-virus, and browsers.
- Think defensively at all times and be alert to cyber threats.
NAR offers a useful article discussing best practices and policies for cyber safety. Does your office have an established data security plan or document retention plan?
If you have a data breach, there are a number of actions that may help with damage control:
- When wiring money transfers, confirm receipt immediately.
- If you’ve been hacked or click on a link that locks your screen, shut your machine down immediately.
- Inform colleagues if they may have been exposed as a result of a data breach. Provide as many details as you can, and inform your IT department or manager.
- Change all of your passwords to ensure they are strong.
- Report the breach to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center.
- Report the breach to your local REALTOR® association.
- Report the breach to RMLS™ by contacting Michelle Gray at (503) 872-8059.
Cyber safety is incredibly important for everyone. RMLS™ urges REALTORS® to stay informed and be alert to remain safe!
There is no doubt that the work day of a REALTOR® is not an average day at the office. You’ve got to manage so many moving parts within your day: juggling clients and paperwork; darting from one location to the next; and staying informed and current with market trends. Above all, you need to stay safe.
While there are infinite scenarios that could go wrong in any line of work, REALTORS® can be especially vulnerable. September is REALTOR® Safety Month and in honor of that, I’ll be discussing REALTOR® safety in two blog posts this month. Today, I’ll discuss personal safety.
There are a variety of tools and practical ways to enhance the personal safety and awareness of REALTORS®. A good start to being mindful of safety is to be alert and aware.
When dealing with strangers, there is no guarantee that potential clients are who they say they are, and there is no guarantee that they will be harmless. To be clear, this is in no way meant to advocate a fearful mindset—rather the opposite. Awareness that elements of the unknown always exist is a good motivator to stay alert and be prepared.
In practice, this means:
• Meet strangers at an office or public space—never alone at the property.
• Take your own car.
• Bring someone you know or work with when possible.
• Never walk with your back to the client.
• Be aware of exits at all times.
• Try to show during daylight hours when possible.
• Cut a showing short if the client exhibits suspicious or red flag behaviors.
• Require visitors to provide a photo ID and use a sign-in sheet at open houses.
RMLS™ offers Document #1071, Ten Commandments of Agent Safety, which offers a number of smart practices and suggestions to enhance your safety and awareness.
Prevention is greatly aided by preparedness. Does your office have an established safety policy?
In practice, this means:
• Set a showing itinerary and share with your office and a family or friend.
• Use a prospect ID form and share with your office.
• Maintain a current agent ID form within your office.
• Dress for safety: comfortable shoes, avoid wearing expensive accessories, etc.
• Establish coded distress signal for the office ahead of time.
• Establish a reporting protocol.
There are safety issues that ebb and flow across the country and like all other places, the northwest has our own set of recurring safety concerns. The following are a few scenarios that have been reported to RMLS™ over the past year:
A man who calls female REALTORS® and claims he drugged their water bottle during an open house and assaulted the agent shortly thereafter. He insists they would have no knowledge of it and that he is only now calling to “relieve [his] conscience.”
What to do: Hang up. Do not engage in dialogue with this man, and write down his number if it isn’t blocked. Report the incident to the brokerage manager, the local authorities via their non-emergency number, and to RMLS™.
Male “prospective client” calling brokerage offices insisting to work exclusively with female REALTORS®.
What to do: Get his contact information if possible. Report the incident to the brokerage manager, the local authorities via their non-emergency number, and to RMLS™.
Persons showing up to open houses, acting suspicious, trying to get out of the agent’s line of sight and going through cabinets and drawers.
What to do: Call 9-1-1, report the incident to the brokerage manager, and to RMLS™.
Report REALTOR® safety issues to RMLS™. We look for trends and sometimes issue specific alerts on the RMLSweb desktop. To report an incident or safety concern to RMLS™, contact Michelle Gray at (503) 872-8059.
If you’re interested in learning some self defense, the Portland-area chapter of the Women’s Council of REALTORS® is hosting a self-defense class in Lake Oswego on Wednesday, September 14th.
The following are links to articles, videos, and apps from the National Association of REALTORS®:
Field Guide to REALTOR® Safety
REALTOR® Safety Resources
“Safety Policies” article from REALTOR®Mag
Remember, to minimize your vulnerability is to maximize your safety. Part 2 of my safety discussion will highlight electronic safety regarding fraud, scams, email hacking, reporting, and best practices for electronic safety. Look for it later this month!
Safety should never be relegated to just one month, but September is REALTOR® Safety Month. This year marks the 10th year of the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) dedicating a month to REALTOR® safety. Every year more and more alarming (and sometimes bizarre!) stories emerge from our subscribers: robberies, creeps, and fools. Every year RMLS™ strives to give subscribers resource material to better educate and protect themselves.
Top Tips from NAR (and Me)
The following are the four most paramount tips NAR would like to pass on:
- Have office guests sign in. At the office, use a visitor log book where potential clients fill out a customer identification form. Remember to check IDs.
- Don’t disclose too much personal information online. Consider setting up separate personal and business accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. This will help protect your personal photos, posts, and other information from people you don’t know.
- Familiarize yourself with the properties you’re showing. If you are showing a vacant house, walk the perimeter of the property before you or your client enter to look for signs that someone has been or is currently inside.
- Note your escape route. When showing a property, leave the front door unlocked for a quick exit if needed. As you walk through a house, let the client enter rooms ahead of you.
And my personal favorite tips:
- Tell people where you are going if meeting someone alone or for the first time. You can also go so far as to have a colleague call you at a certain time if you are nervous about the meeting. Mention the name of who you’re meeting and even set an estimated time of return.
- Reasonable people will answer reasonable questions. For instance, there has been a rash of would-be buyers who are offended when asked to provide proof of funds for an all-cash transaction or who become upset if you can’t meet with them under their conditions. While it’s not always the case, dramatic reactions to seemingly benign questions or comments should raise concern.
- Advise your sellers of the possibilities. Tell them to lock up all valuables, especially small items such as prescription bottles, checks, and jewelry. Even at a brokers’ tour with the most seasoned agent, someone who doesn’t look suspicious who says they were in the neighborhood and saw the sign can wreak havoc and you know the rest.
Technology. Whew, What They Can Do These Days!
In our last safety post, we discussed internet resources REALTORS® could utilize to be notified should their listings be hijacked by scam artists and posted on sites like Craigslist and even Trulia. Now you can empower yourself with applications on your mobile devices. Smartphones have become ubiquitous in the real estate industry. Safety applications go beyond just panic button capabilities these days. Some applications utilize GPS coordinates for emergency response while others offer speed dialing or automated emergency messages that go to designated numbers. As new apps become available every day, check your mobile device’s app store for the latest offers and information.
That said, still protect your personal information in case your phone is stolen or compromised. Consider installing a tracking device on your phone where you can remotely access it from a computer. Device passwords should be unique and free from obvious patterns like 4-3-2-1 or 1-3-7-9 (the four corners of a key pad). Read on at REALTOR.org for a comprehensive list of safety precautions for your valuables and yourself beyond those mentioned here.
Speaking of helpful resources, NAR has an archive of safety webinars for REALTORS® that include all they released in the last four years. Webinar topics on the archive include open house safety, online safety, office layouts, and removing dangers specific to distressed properties. This kind of information can be great to touch on either briefly at an office meeting, or NAR has a variety of full presentations available for your staff.
Trust your instincts, be aware of your surroundings, and always listen to the little voice, no matter how cliched or cynical, that says if something looks too good to be true…
Happy REALTOR® Safety Month, and if you would like to report an incident or concern regarding safety or fraud to RMLS™, please contact me at email@example.com.
Complications have continued for agents with vacant listings, as we’ve heard reported by some subscribers since the last entry in the RMLS™ safety series. Copper, appliances, and staging furniture have gone missing. Squatters have remained a very real problem. It is imperative that REALTORS® take measures to reduce a listing’s susceptibility to damage and vandalism.
The NAR Risk Management Committee recently released a video tutorial detailing tools that agents can utilize to better protect their clients and their listings such as Google Alerts and IfThisThenThat.
The following ideas, while perhaps seemingly obvious, might still be useful. The number of vacant, foreclosed, and other distressed properties are declining as the market begins to rebound, but there is still a ways to go.
- Visit the property weekly, making times of your visits sporadic. Do not set a pattern.
- Hire housesitters to either stay at the house or visit regularly if you are not able to.
- Check all locks and entrances to the house, including windows. This is especially important following an open house or showing. I have received several reports of houses being cleaned out after a window was left ajar, or just unlocked.
- Park a car in the driveway. This blocks access to the garage (prime spot for clearing out large items without looking suspicious) as well as gives the impression that someone is at the house regularly.
- Bring up safety topics and concerns during office staff meetings. Your colleagues might have greater insight or similar experiences to share. Real estate is a word-of-mouth business and keeping the conversation out in the open is a very powerful tool.
- Be aware that copper piping is very susceptible to theft. It is known to happen in existing homes, but new construction sites face the greatest threat.
- Set lights in the house on a timer.
- Don’t mention the location of the lockbox in the listing’s public remarks. To gain entry to the house, squatters can just as soon pick a lock, but the lockbox has been known to be a target. There have been reports over the years of listings with missing lockboxes, but no damage or theft to the house. Many times vandals take bolt cutters to the shackle and take the box to work on it elsewhere to limit visibility. If that’s the case, call the police, change the locks, and consider calling your business insurance agent.
- Don’t hesitate to enlist the help of neighbors to keep an eye on the place. It is also in their best interest that the house remains safe!
Real Estate: Loss Prevention for Vacant Buildings
Protecting Vacant Real Estate Property
Copper Theft: How to Protect Your Property from Vandalism
Theft and Vandalism Claims Have Carriers on Edge in Vacant Property Segment
To report an incident or concerns to RMLS™, please contact Kelly McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since before the beginning of the lingering recession, people with less than honorable intentions have found their way into homes and set up camp. In this edition of our REALTOR® safety series, we have compiled a few stories from our subscribers, some harrowing and some amusing, as cautionary tales of which any real estate professional should be aware. Granted, these are rare and strange cases, but they have been known happen and can easily happen to the most thorough real estate professional.
Squatters, Joy Riders, and Other Things That Go Bump in the Vacant
Usually when a vacant property is put up for sale, the process is not much different than any other listing. Sometimes the home has been winterized, maybe even staged with furniture to entice buyers as well as deter looters. But since 2008, we have received an increasing number of reports where agents visit their listings only to find them in some substandard condition.
An agent once went to show a townhouse when they were greeted with squatters who tried to pass themselves off as prospective buyers looking around. The sliding glass door in the back was damaged and off the rail. They had also left a mess of garbage and personal effects. They left promptly, but the client was not far behind them.
I got a call from an agent who said she once went to a high end listing in the West Hills with a client, only to open the door and find two squealing teenage girls barreling past them. As they fled, they called out that their boyfriends were still in the house. Well, no one was in the house, especially the stunned agent and the client, who stayed outside until police had a chance to come and search the place. Nothing was taken from the house, so the girls were likely joy riding, but the experience rattled the client, naturally, who didn’t even want to look at the house after that.
In a really bizarre case, I received a call in which neighbors contacted the listing agent, saying they didn’t realize the house sold so quickly. The agent was confused; the house hadn’t sold. Apparently, someone who had toured the house managed to move into the vacant property, even going so far as to introduce himself to the surrounding neighbors as the new owner. When the agent arrived (unadvisedly alone) to investigate, she fled after the individual lunged at her and tried to pull her into the house. The agent escaped unharmed, and had a SWAT team in there soon after, but the perp had already disappeared.
We always try to reiterate personal safety. If you think someone is in the house, never go in without the authorities.
Occupy Portland Twist
Last summer The Oregonian and other news outlets ran several pieces on squatters in foreclosed or vacant homes, some claiming to be associated with Occupy Portland in protest:
• Portland Tackles Backlog of Complaints About Vacant Houses, Many in Foreclosure
• Occupy Portland Squatters Take Over Home Woman Still Owns on North Mississippi
• Squatters with Plan Arrested in Portland Homes
Sadly, these squatters did more damage to the properties than the bank ever could. Some reports suggest that the squatters were orchestrating foreclosure letters in an attempt to get owners out of their homes.
I’ve seen reports of disgruntled homeowners facing eviction who then take it upon themselves to gut their house and remove all the appliances and finishes. Now in recent news, there are reports of homeowners moving out of homes facing foreclosure, only to have the banks stall on the foreclosure process, leaving the house in a limbo state, unbeknownst to the homeowner (aka “zombie” titles). Consequently, the house is then vacant and the homeowner is still liable for the taxes and maintenance on the home. Years later, they are presented with code violations, tax liens, and clean-up costs resulting from looters and squatters.
What Can Be Done?
What can you as a real estate professional do about this? If you find yourself with a vacant listing with little viewing activity, here are some things to consider:
- Make a point to visit the property weekly, making times of your visits sporadic, to not set a pattern, in case someone is casing activity on the house.
- Check all locks and entrances to the house.
- Consider setting the lights on a timer.
- Don’t mention the location of the lockbox in the listing’s public remarks. To gain entry to the house, squatters can just as soon pick a lock, but the lockbox has been known to be a target. There have been reports over the years of listings with missing lockboxes, but no damage or theft to the house. Many times vandals take bolt cutters to the shackle and take the box to work on it elsewhere to limit visibility. If that’s the case, call the police, change the locks, and consider calling your business insurance.
- Don’t hesitate to enlist the help of neighbors to keep an eye on the place. It’s also in their best interest the house remains safe.
Photo courtesy of Patrick Feller on Flickr.
Most of us want to take people at their word and believe that they have the most honest of intentions. Sadly, that has never been a totally realistic expectation to have. Many say the problem has increased with the internet, but it may be that the internet has just complicated matters by offering new ways to play old tricks. Most of the following scams you will find on either the internet or in your mailbox.
Many times, the REALTOR® is not the victim directly, but these crimes can tarnish the industry and also compromise the trust of the public. As the country begins to climb out of one of the worst recessions of the last century, we want everyone to have the best possible experience when buying and selling real estate. Part of that is knowing all that can possible deter that pleasant experience. Read the following for more information and what you can do in the event that you suspect you or your clients are the targets of a real estate scam artist.
Craigslist Rental Scams: REALTORS® and their sellers have been increasingly victimized by individuals taking their listings or photos from a website and posting them on bulletin sites to try and secure deposits from prospective renters. The houses may be vacant or owner occupied. Fortunately, people are usually well aware of the scams on bulletins sites and realize a listing for a four bedroom house in an affluent neighborhood doesn’t rent for $500.
If the listing is occupied, the owners can be alarmed if they find people casing their property or looking in their windows to size up the living room. An owner’s shaken confidence can be damaging when a listing agent is legitimately trying to sell their property.
If you find a listing has been hijacked, flag it for Craigslist to remove and if you like, contact the FTC and FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Large Homes, All Cash, Quick Escrow…: You usually lose nothing but time and gain only frustration with deals that seem too good to be true. A prospective buyer claims to have X amount of money, all cash, and needs a quick closing. Everything is perfect until the time comes to submit the earnest money or sign the papers. Always go on instinct and trust your judgment, and get verification.
Leads for FSBO Listings: Someone claims to have connections with frustrated FSBOs who need REALTORS® or have other listing leads. This individual then attempts to sell these names for $10-15 a head. Usually they claim to get their leads through an affiliation with either a reputable brokerage firm or educational institution. The names are either of FSBOs with no interest in working with an agent or home owners who are not even in the market to sell. Either way, you are still out $100-150 (these “leads” are often presented as a package deal) with little room for recourse since the situation is hard to prosecute. Always approach such offers with extreme caution.
Overseas Transactions: People from overseas purchase property all the time. However, scams originate overseas as often as they do locally. It is always a good policy to enter into transactions with people you can see past an e-mail and with verified funding.
Real Estate Scam for Lawyers: Someone will contact a real estate agent expressing interest in a large property. They will then request a recommendation for an attorney to set up a trust for escrow, sending a cashier’s check to the attorney for an exorbitant amount of money. After the deal is written, the scammer then rescinds and requests a refund back when the original check was no good in the first place. This is just a minor twist on the classic confidence scam that can still lead to a very unfortunate outcome.
Resources: If or when you have a brush with any of these scenarios, contact your local police department, the Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau, and your state’s Attorney General:
Oregon Department of Justice
1162 Court Street NE
Salem, OR 97301-4096
Washington Attorney General
1125 Washington Street SE
PO Box 40100
Olympia, WA 98504-0100
Online Complaint Form
Next time in our series: Vacants, Squatters, and Occupy Portland.