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First rule of Realtor safety: Know thy client

Kidnapping, robbery of Pennsylvania real estate agent highlights need for precautions

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By DAVID W. MYERS

The kidnapping and armed robbery of a Pennsylvania Realtor by a man who posed as a prospective buyer is the latest reminder of the dangers that real estate agents face when performing even the most basic tasks, such as driving buyers around to show them properties, holding open houses for sellers, or simply meeting a prospective client for the very first time.

Thankfully, agent Sharron Minnich of Prudential Bob Yost Realtors in West York was unharmed in the May 21 incident. A suspect was arrested shortly after Minnich was forced to withdraw money from an automatic teller machine at knifepoint.

While Minnich was fortunate, the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show fatal workplace injuries in the real estate industry reaching their highest level in at least seven years in 2010, with assaults and violent acts accounting for the largest share of deaths. Such statistics highlight the need for agents to take precautions when doing their everyday jobs.

“If you’re a police officer, a soldier or even a New York cab driver, you know that you’re at constant risk,” said Robert Siciliano, the CEO of Boston-based realtysecurity.com, which offers safety courses to real estate groups across the nation. “You take the proper precautions and you’re ‘on your toes’ all the time.

“But most Realtors aren’t like that,” he added. “They’re so busy, and they lack the formal security training to realize when they might be in a potentially dangerous situation.”

One key that can help agents avoid such situations: Know thy client.

“If you’re meeting with someone for the first time, like a buyer who called you after seeing one of your ads, you don’t know if the person is ‘legit’ or if he’s a criminal looking for new prey,” said Matt Lombardi, a National Association of Realtors vice president who helps manage the trade group’s National Safety Program.

“So, you need to get as much information about the person as you can before you decide to start working with him or her.”

The best bet is to gently insist that the prospect first meet in your office, where you know that you’ll be safe and the potential customer will be seen by other agents, Lombardi said.

At a minimum, he added, you’ll need to get the person’s full name, contact information, and a copy of his driver’s license. That way, authorities will know who to look for if something goes wrong later.

Even better, Lombardi said, is to have the office visitor complete NAR’s “Prospect Identification Form.” The form asks for more detailed information, including the name and phone number of his employer, the type of car he drives, and its plate number.

The form can be downloaded for free by agents and the general public at NAR’s website, www.realtor.org.

Lombardi acknowledges that some prospects will balk at providing such personal information. “But if you explain that the info will stay only in the office, and that it’s for the protection of both you and the client, most people will understand and comply,” he said.

But what if they don’t, and walk out instead? “Well, you may have just lost out on a sale,” said realtysecurity.com’s Siciliano. “Or, you may have just avoided establishing a relationship with a criminal who’s afraid to divulge his true identity. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Driving from one property to the next raises other safety concerns. Ideally, you can take a co-worker with you: “There’s always strength in numbers,” Siciliano said.

Whether you’re using the “buddy system” or working solo, it’s best to drive your own car and have the client follow you in his. If you must take only one car, insist that you do the driving so you have more control over where you are going.

“Also, try to park at the curb rather than in the home’s driveway,” said Andrew L. Wooten, the Jacksonsville, Fla.-based safety expert who holds quarterly safety webinars for NAR. “That reduces the chance that you can get blocked in if you have to escape, and you’ll draw more attention if you’re screaming if you have to flee.”

Agents should take additional precautions as they show the home. Start by calling the office while the client is present to let them know that you have arrived, so someone else will know where you are and who you are with.

Let the client lead the way as he explores the house to avoid the chance of being attacked from behind, or that he’ll steal small valuables while your back is turned, Wooten said. It’s OK to let the client inspect the basement or attic, but you should avoid going into such confined spaces yourself because they’re difficult to escape and tend to muffle calls for help.

Also have an excuse ready if you start to feel uneasy. “Saying something like, ‘Pardon me, I have to make a call to the agent who’s on his way here’ gives you a chance to get out of the house,” Siciliano said.

Most of those tips for agents who are representing buyers also apply to those who are holding an open house on behalf of a seller. But there are additional steps they can take to help ensure their safety, experts say.

Before the open house begins, make sure you know the home’s floor plan thoroughly and its possible escape routes, Wooten advises. If one of those routes involves the property’s back door, also make sure you could escape from the backyard, too: They’re often surrounded by high fences or walls, especially if there’s a pool or big dog on the property.

Unlock all of the home’s deadbolts so you don’t have to fumble with a lock and key if you must flee.

“Also turn on all the lights and open the curtains, which is not only a good safety precaution but also a nice marketing tactic,” said Realtor Martin Feinberg of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Keller Williams Realty.

It’s obviously important to have each visitor sign in when the open house begins and, preferably, show a picture ID. If you’re wisely working the buddy system, you can tour the house with the visitor while your co-worker goes outside to jot down his car’s license plate number.

Whether you’re holding an open house or toting around a prospective buyer, keep in regular contact with your office. Also, have a nondescript code word or phrase — such as “brilliant” or “It’s in the file next to Peggy’s desk” — to alert your co-worker on the other end of the phone if you are feeling uneasy or may already be in trouble. The co-worker can then call police.

“In some communities, you can even call the local police station ahead of time and request that they send a cruiser by every hour or so when the open house is held, so the cops can look for anything suspicious,” Siciliano said.

Here are some other tips that experts say can keep you safe:

Avoid glamour shots

“A lot of predators choose their victims based on their appearance,” Siciliano said. Women should avoid using “glamour” shots on their business cards and marketing materials. Regardless of what gender you are, a business-type photo is safer and usually more effective.”

Dress for safety

Wear professional business outfits when you’re on the job, rather than loose-fitting clothes or scarves that an attacker can grab. To discourage robberies, leave your fancy jewelry or expensive watch at home or in the office.

Be careful what you disclose

Never print your home phone number or address on your business cards, or even give them to a client that you have already checked out. Avoid talking too much about your personal life and your family unless the client is a longtime friend.

Take a self-defense course

The techniques you learn can help you fend off an attacker, or come in handy if you find yourself in some other type of jam. Many realty boards and even individual offices across the nation offer such courses for free, or have struck deals with private training firms that give discounts to agents.

Follow your instincts

Above all, experts say, always follow your instincts. “If a potential client is uncooperative about providing important information or makes you uneasy, don’t work with him,” Siciliano said. “And don’t make exceptions to the safety precautions that you should normally take, like showing a home to someone who you haven’t already ‘vetted,’ or meeting someone at an empty house late at night.”

That’s a lesson that Sharron Minnich, the Pennsylvania Realtor who was kidnapped and robbed last month, will never forget.

“This guy called me up, said he had $250,000 in cash to invest, and wanted me to meet him at a property that was for sale,” she said. “I usually get all the information about a [prospect] as I can before I start working with them. But against my better judgment, I met the guy at the house without thoroughly checking him out first.”

After touring the home, the man followed the 60-year-old Minnich back to her car, hopped into the passenger seat, pulled out a knife and ordered her to drive to an automated teller machine. He absconded with just $20.

Police quickly arrested a suspect, Gregory Scott Knaub, 37, who faces several years in prison if he’s found guilty of the kidnapping, robbery and other charges filed against him.

“I’m thankful that everything turned out OK, and that I didn’t get hurt,” Minnich told Inman News on Friday. “But this whole thing might never have happened if I had just checked the guy out first and followed my gut instincts.”

David Myers is a nationally syndicated real estate writer who lives in California.

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