5 tips for protecting real estate clients’ privacy

Those using Google services have a tough decision to make

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Google announced that as of March 1, 2012, it will begin following the activities of anyone who uses YouTube, Gmail or the Google search engine. Furthermore, there is no "opt out" option. If you’re using Google services as part of your real estate business, you need to weigh the pros and cons of continuing to do so.

A major challenge the real estate industry faces today is that technology changes are outpacing guidelines and ethics about how to deal with these changes. An excellent example is digital signatures. All but three states allow them, and yet many lenders, title companies and escrow companies refuse to accept digitally signed documents.

Google’s move to aggregate data from your Gmail account, YouTube, Google Search, and other Google apps into a single place may indeed provide for a better user experience.

For example, the information they gather about your online behavior can help them deliver better search results for a term such as "cougar." Do you want a car, a picture of the big cat that lives in the nearby mountains, or a date with an older woman?

Your past habits become a way for Google to display better search results as well as provide what has become known as the "holy grail" in the advertising business: ads designed to closely match what interests you based upon how you behave online.

The implications of this change are profound.

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In a January Washington Post article, Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy advocacy group, warned, "There is no way a user can comprehend the implication of Google collecting across platforms for information about your health, political opinions and financial concerns."

If you are using Gmail, Google search, Google Docs, Google Calendars or YouTube, to what extent do you want Google collecting data from all these sources and then selling it to whoever is willing to pay?

The most serious issue for you as an agent occurs when you list a home or put a property under contract. Given that you can no longer "opt out" from Google’s aggregation of your data, what are your responsibilities in terms of your clients? Here are some important issues to consider.

1. What privacy level do you want for yourself and for your business?
Many people couldn’t care less if Google or any other company aggregates their Web browsing habits, their Gmails or their Google calendar. Unfortunately, this level of transparency can become costly if a prospective employer can locate something it deems to be inappropriate or a divorce attorney can access your private emails that you never intended anyone but the recipient to see.

2. Ask your clients about the privacy level they want
There’s a high probability that many of your clients will have Facebook and Gmail accounts, and also rely on other Google-related services. If anyone in the transaction uses Gmail or Google Docs, you probably need to advise her that her private transaction-related communications will be aggregated by Google and can be shared with entities outside the transaction.

3. The other side of the deal
Even if you and your clients have no issue with Google collecting this data, do the other parties in the transaction have any concerns? Many people don’t want their personal information shared anywhere online. Exactly how far do you need to go to address this issue? Unfortunately, there are no real guidelines.

4. Time to upgrade your email
To keep your email communications with your clients private, a smart move is to set up your own domain name with your email address attached to that domain name (i.e., JohnAgent@LiveIn97856.com). This not only maintains the private nature of your communications, it also makes you appear more technologically proficient as compared to an agent who has an AOL, Hotmail or even a Gmail address.

5. The simple solution to this mess
You can bypass all of these issues by shifting your transaction-related communications to texting, email sent from your domain, and/or a transaction tracking platform. Avoid using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or any other platform where you lack complete control of who can access your transaction-related communications.

In addition to keeping your client communications confidential, a transaction management platform also creates a digital paper trail of the transaction that shows exactly who received what documents, when they were opened, as well as providing the best possible security in a cloud-based environment. This is the best way to protect all parties in your transactions.

Bernice Ross, CEO of RealEstateCoach.com, is a national speaker, trainer and author of the National Association of Realtors’ No. 1 best-seller, “Real Estate Dough: Your Recipe for Real Estate Success.” Hear Bernice’s five-minute daily real estate show, just named "new and notable" by iTunes, at www.RealEstateCoachRadio.com. You can contact her at Bernice@RealEstateCoach.com or @BRoss on Twitter.

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