- Real estate agents handle a lot of sensitive client information that needs to be protected.
- Cyber attacks have been growing exponentially in the past few years including attacks on small businesses.
- Encrypting data is one of the surest ways to mitigate the risk of your client information being breached.
Real estate agents handle an array of highly sensitive client information — including income tax returns, bank account data, social security numbers, salary information and more.
A data breach not only threatens clients’ financial security, but it can also ruin a real estate professional’s reputation.
Hacking is a threat
The internet is filled with studies that confirm hacking is a significant and growing problem that affects our professional and personal devices.
According to the Global Business Outlook Survey from Duke University and CFO Magazine, cyber security survey of U.S. businesses have been hacked. The rate goes up to 85 percent for companies that employ fewer than 1,000 people — which applies to many real estate firms.
A cyber security survey reveals that one in four people said they, or someone they know, has been hacked.
The Pew Research Center states that nearly 20 percent of online Americans had personal information — including bank account information, Social Security numbers or credit card numbers — stolen. Just over 20 percent reported their email or social network accounts were compromised.
Researchers from the Ponemon Institute reported that almost half of the nation’s adult online population had their personal information breached in one year.
Encrypting your data
Encryption is one of the most effective methods of securing data. During the encryption process, information is encoded or scrambled so that even if it’s compromised, hackers can’t understand it. Users need an encryption key to decode or unscramble data.
Whenever you transmit personally identifiable information (PII), you should make sure it is encrypted. PII is defined differently in each state, but it generally includes any data that could identify a particular individual.
The National Association of Realtors (NAR) defines PII as “any information that can be used to identify uniquely, contact or locate a single person or can be used with other sources to uniquely identify a single individual.”
Data encryption mitigates risk
Taking steps to protect your clients’ data is not just good for business. In many states, brokers and agents are legally required to implement and maintain safeguards to protect the integrity, security and confidentiality of PII.
Whether you’re using an office computer or a personal mobile device, these encryption technologies can help reduce the risk of a security breach.
Full disk encryption
Full disk encryption (FDE) technology helps secure information by encrypting data that is stored on your device’s hard drive. If an unauthorized person gains physical access to your computer, laptop or tablet, they won’t be able to access your files without your password. It’s important to use an exceptionally strong password.
FDE is an excellent way to help protect your data if your device falls into the wrong hands, but it does not secure your computer against a network or online attack. BitLocker is an FDE tool built into recent versions of Windows. VeraCrypt is another free FDE product with versions for Windows, OS X, and Linux.
Email, chat and cloud encryption
Real estate agents constantly send and receive emails — many of which might contain PII. Although email is convenient, it’s notoriously vulnerable to hackers.
An alert from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and NAR warns that scammers hack into real estate agent emails not only to steal PII but also to direct homebuyers to deposit closing funds into fraudulent bank accounts.
There are a few simple ways to encrypt email messages: encrypting emails in transit, encrypting the text of the email message or both.
If you use an email service such as Gmail or Hotmail, the “HTTPS” that appears in your web browser’s address bar tells you that your email is protected in transit. However, emails saved to your account are unencrypted.
To encrypt the text of your email, consider using GhostMail or another secure email service. In addition to email encryption, GhostMail offers instant message chat encryption through GhostChat and encrypted Cloud storage via GhostBox.
Mobile message encryption
Whether you’re communicating with a broker, lender or client, chances are you send and receive mobile messages that could be useful to hackers. There are Wickr messenger app that encrypt everything from text messages to voicemail messages.
The app you choose depends on your service provider, the level of security you want and whether you want to pay for encryption services.
Wickr messenger app, for example, allows you to send encrypted text messages, videos, photos, voice messages and files across all of your mobile devices. With Wickr, you can also create secure groups for people you communicate with frequently and send encrypted files and videos with expiration dates.
Modern technology enables real estate professionals to work more efficiently, but it also requires that they be vigilant about data security.
Use encryption to help make data less vulnerable to attack, and consider taking NAR’s online Data Security and Privacy Course to learn how to increase PII security.