For the last few months, when thinking about danger, we’ve rightly been focused on an invisible virus. “Safety” has meant staying away from others, wearing a mask, and washing our hands. When working with the public, as Realtors® do, physical violence has usually been front of mind when talking about safety. While physical safety obviously remains important, electronic/cybercrimes 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 cybercrime looming over the transaction. So much of our lives are online now, and there's no way to protect yourself from every instance cybercrime. Since few if any Realtors would work without a computer or smartphone, industry professionals 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®. Smaller and midsized real estate companies—where transactions involve multiple players and large sums of money—are an ideal target for criminals, Edgerton said.
Unfortunately, hackers can gain access to email accounts fairly easily. 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.
So how can you help make yourself more secure? Some 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.
This can lead to another potentially devastating scam, wire fraud. Staying alert can protect yourself and your money. As you approach the closing date, be cautious of emails. It’s unusual for wiring instructions to change at the last minute or that the title company would do so via email. Call the title company using a known phone number, not the one provided in the email, which might be spoofed to appear to be from someone involved in the closing. Before sending the wire, ask your bank to confirm the name on the receiving account. And within a few hours, call your REALTOR® or title company to confirm your monies were received.
Another common scam involves taking legitimate property listings from websites and reposting them on other sites such as Craigslist for rent. Scammers will typically make up a plausible story that requires the consumer to wire or mail them money without ever meeting in person. The problem comes when all the renters try to move in and discover the property was never the “landlord’s” to rent in the first place. Meanwhile, the scammer take the funds and disappear.
Educating our clients on these dangers is a top priority. As Realtors, 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 year-round. Realtors are focused on protecting our clients and ourselves. That’s Who We R.