Every year, Realtors recognize September as Realtor® Safety Month. While threats of physical violence are usually the first thing that comes to mind when talking about safety, electronic crimes are becoming more and more common. These offenses can include identity theft, email hacking, and wire fraud.
Buying and selling property is stressful enough without having the threat of cyber crime looming over the transaction. Apart from digging a hole in your back yard, throwing your computer in, dousing it with gasoline, and lighting it on fire, there's no foolproof way to protect yourself from cybercrime. Since few if any Realtors would work without a computer or smartphone, industry pros are addressing the threat head-on to protect their clients.
“Cybercrime is a global problem, one that's becoming more prevalent and more urgent," said Jessica Edgerton, Associate Counsel with the National Association of REALTORS®. And it’s not just government agencies or large multinational corporations that are targets. Smaller and midsized real estate companies—where transactions involve multiple players and large sums of money—are an ideal target for criminals, Edgerton said. Among small businesses victimized by a successful cybersecurity breach, she said, 60 percent go out of business within six months.
Hackers can gain access to email accounts through simple schemes. Hacking can come in the form of an infected attachment or link that appears to come from a benign sender. “Clicking is something that’s deadly dangerous,” says Edgerton, whose motto is “Think before you click.”
Opening a bad link or attachment can trigger a key logger, which is malware that reads keystrokes to capture your passwords. It can also open ransomware that will encrypt everything on your system it can reach, including connected drives and networks.
Another way hackers gain entry is through brute force attack on your email password. If you use a simple password, hackers have software that can usually crack it in seconds. Hackers may also be stalking your online profiles and social media accounts, looking for names and dates that are meaningful to you that you may also be using in your passwords.
Once hackers capture your email password, they can search for messages related to real estate transactions. They can then send a spoof email to a buyer that looks virtually identical to an email from the Realtor’s account providing “new wiring instructions" that will divert funds to the hacker's account. If a buyer takes the bait, the funds are usually gone for good.
If you're hit with a ransomware attack, disconnect your computer immediately. Talk to your IT people, report the hack to the FBI, and decide if you want to pay the ransom. Also, consider these solutions to help minimize the risks of becoming a victim of cyber attacks.
Easy solutions include keeping your operating systems up to date and checking your social media privacy settings. Less obvious tips include using complex passwords, and changing your passwords on a regular basis. Perhaps even consider using a password manager.
Once your password is compromised, hackers can put a rule in your settings that will forward certain emails to their account. Realtors (and our clients) should try to avoid sending sensitive information via email when possible. Attaching forms, financials, and confidential files to an email is an efficient way to communicate, but criminals are looking to take advantage of that.
Educating our clients on these dangers is a top priority. We do our best to make sure the public Knows the prevalence of wire fraud and we advise clients to call and verify information before they wire funds. To ensure they're reaching the right person, buyers should contact their Realtor using numbers provided in advance.
Safety is our priority. Realtors are focused on protecting our clients as well as ourselves. That’s Who We R.