Author’s note: Please see my new comment in the comments section below, in which I explain that privacy decisions are always the client’s call.
For the last several years, everyone has been pounding the drum, "You have to be on Facebook." While "friending" your clients on Facebook seems like a good idea, given some recent changes in Facebook policy it may be time to "unfriend" them instead.
There’s no doubt that Facebook can be a powerful tool for building client connection. It can also be a great tool for creating groups and building an online presence in your local market area. Nevertheless, there are some serious problems you may not know about that can jeopardize how you’re handling your personal and your clients’ confidentiality.
Second, if you’re playing any of the Facebook games provided by third parties, often these games are data-mining schemes. The designers harvest the information about you and your friends and sell them to third parties. Failure to block these applications means that even if you’re not involved in playing these games, if any of your friends are, your information may be harvested due to their activities.
There are two even more serious issues. On Jan. 26, 2011, Barbara Ortutay wrote an article describing yet another change in Facebook policies.
"Facebook users who check in to a store or click the ‘like’ button for a brand may soon find those actions are retransmitted on their friends’ pages as a ‘Sponsored Story’ paid for by advertisers. Currently there is no way for users to decline this feature."
In other words, if have clients in your Facebook database of friends and you click "like" for a particular brand, Facebook may display that choice as a "sponsored story" on your client’s page without your permission. To your client, it will look as if you put a paid commercial for a company on their page. Since there is no way to opt out of this feature, this means that you need to stop "liking" various brands on Facebook.
For example, you might have a friend who is an agent at another brokerage. You post a "like" about something your friend did. If your friend takes out a Facebook ad, it’s conceivable that your "like" would now become a "sponsored story" that endorses your friend as an agent — not such a great move for your business.
In addition to these issues, on Jan. 17 PC Magazine reported on another potential problem. Facebook is now allowing app developers to request access to users’ contact information, including their address and mobile phone number.
Although Facebook assures users that they must explicitly grant app developers permission to access their contact information, at least one security expert is concerned that they will be tricked into doing so.
"It won’t take long for scammers to take advantage of this new facility, to use for their own criminal ends," warns Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Internet security provider Sophos Ltd.
It’s one thing to have your office phone number on Facebook. We all want potential clients to be able to reach us easily. On the other hand, it’s something else entirely to have our mobile numbers distributed to third parties. Here’s why.
Have you received any spam text messages on your mobile phone? How do you think they got the number? There’s a good chance your data was sold to one of these third-party advertisers either through Facebook, Google, or a host of other companies that collect and distribute this data.
To reduce your exposure, PC Magazine recommended the following course of action:
"Users should delete their phone numbers and addresses from their profile information."
While this may seem extreme, it probably is an excellent idea. The challenge here is that we are in an entirely new realm and there aren’t a lot of guidelines to help Realtors navigate through these issues.
For example, what are your obligations in terms of protecting your clients’ private information? Do you need a disclosure that says that if a client becomes your Facebook friend that Facebook may distribute their contact information including their cell phone number to third-party advertisers? Could you be sued for violating client confidentiality?
The bottom line here is that if you are doing a transaction with a Facebook friend, the smart move may be to unfriend your clients immediately. For friends who do become your clients, the moment you enter into an agency relationship, you may need to remove that relationship from Facebook as well.
If your clients ask about your decision, explain to them that you are concerned about protecting their privacy and that you will be communicating with them either through a transaction tracking platform, e-mail, phone or text messaging.
While Facebook can be great for staying in touch, having fun and even building your business, it may not be your friend when it comes to your clients who are also your Facebook friends.