Simple tips from safety experts and agents on how to minimize risk, prepare for dangers and do the job safely.
Following the National Association of Realtors’ annual Realtor Safety Month, we’re putting a spotlight on the threats agents regularly face in their day-to-day business, how the real estate industry is working to protect itself and how individual agents can stay safe. Inman cannot guarantee safety by following these practices, but offers them up as information for consideration when developing an individual or brokerage office safety plan.
Real estate agents get into the business to help clients buy and sell property — not to put their security, safety or lives on the line. Nonetheless, associates may find themselves in situations that pose risks to their well-being and that of their clients.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 91 fatal injuries in real estate sales and rentals in 2016, up from 64 the year before — a fatality rate of 3.2 percent per 100,000 workers.
After speaking with safety advocates, agents and trade groups, and reviewing data from our own targeted survey, Inman has created its own guide of the bare essentials to protecting agents on the job and minimizing risks. Read on to learn simple strategies recommended by those who have trained for, and lived through, dangerous situations.
What is the state of agent safety?
The reality is that for real estate agents, there are risks on the job. An Inman targeted survey in which 73 percent of the respondents were female agents found that nearly 9 percent of respondents had been threatened or attacked. More than 5 percent said they were forced to use a gun, and more than five percent said they deployed a smartphone safety app.
Respondents felt least safe when door knocking and meeting with new clients or showing homes to potential clients, the survey found. One respondent noted that assaults were under-reported.
Meanwhile according to the recently released National Association of Realtors’ Realtor Member Safety Report for 2018, a third of Realtors said they had experienced a situation that made them fear for their personal safety or the safety of their personal information. Women and real estate professionals in suburban areas were most likely to have had a threatening experience.
More than 60 percent had personal safety protocols in place and 43 percent chose to carry self-defense weapons, the report said.
Agents are inconsistent with precautions like meeting new clients at an office before taking them to view homes — and they’re becoming less disciplined, the NAR survey noted. The typical respondent meets prospective clients in a neutral location only 40 percent of the time, down from 50 percent in 2017.
It was also concerning that only 19 percent of respondents (NAR polled more than 57,000 agents and received 3,000 responses) have attended a Realtor agent safety course, with women more likely to do so than men (23 percent compared to 14 percent).
Indeed, a quarter of respondents in an Inman targeted reader survey indicated they become more careless if there hadn’t been a high-profile attack recently. According to safety advocates, agents frequently avoid safety courses until a new attack, or take risky short cuts when they’re anxious for a sale.
“We’re just one tragedy away from agents getting worried about their safety again,” said Philip Faranda, president of the Beverly Carter Foundation, a safety advocacy group so named for a slain Arkansas Realtor who was murdered while showing a remote home. “It’s like anything else: everybody is motivated to vote the day after the election, but four years later, let’s see.”
Carol Berberian, a safety trainer and business development consultant at Boston-based brokerage Lamacchia Realty, said some people don’t like the “scary parts” of safety training, and they don’t like to think of Beverly Carter, the Realtor who was targeted, kidnapped and murdered while showing a remote property to a new buyer in 2014.
According to the NAR report, the situations where agents commonly felt most afraid for their safety were:
- Open houses
- Vacant homes
- Model homes
- Properties that were unlocked or unsecured
- When buyers refused to meet in public spaces
- Properties in remote areas
“The majority of agents who have been doing business for many years have had some point when someone asks them to look in a basement, or to meet late in the evening when they suddenly feel not safe,” Berberian told Inman.
“We tend to move very quickly into these situations,” she added.
Berberian knows that safety training classes are not a number one priority for many agents. They tend to only go to classes that help them make more money, she said.
With this in mind, she has designed her classes to help agents market their safety awareness and knowledge to clients in a way that will help them win business.
Simple strategies for staying physically safe
There are a number of guides used by brokerages and agents internally, and available on the web from companies including Redfin and Safewise that can be helpful resources for agents thinking about how to ensure and improve their safety. Inman has reviewed many of them and spoken to experts, and come away with several key strategies worth following, including:
Always meet new clients somewhere public
This is common sense advice for all business professionals, but especially agents, who are dealing with new faces all the time. Whether it’s a brokerage office with other staffers or a Starbucks, there is widespread industry agreement that meeting new clients should be done in a public setting — especially on that first meeting.
In private showings or open houses staffed by just one agent, this can be challenging. So some safety professionals advise agents check in with colleagues via text or audio call every so often during an open house.
Read verbal and non-verbal body cues.
Mark Booher, the founder and director of Barritus Defense, a security and training defense company that teaches real estate safety courses, said it’s important to ask prospective clients non-business related questions – even if you don’t really care about the answers – just to get to know the person.
“Engage the person in conversation to try and get a read on them,” Booher said.
If someone begins behaving unusually or threateningly around agents in a private showing or open house setting, they should consider calling a colleague and putting them on speakerphone so they can hear what’s going on.
Get a new client’s name, contact information, and copy of their ID
This is easier once an introduction has already occurred and the client is serious about pursuing a business relationship. But even at an initial meeting or open house, agents should take care to have clients sign-in on a sheet or tablet, include contact information, and eventually, request their ID for photocopying.
Share calendars and schedules with colleagues and supervisors
Agents should make sure their trusted colleagues are aware of their schedules, when and where they are going to be, for how long, and with whom.
This way, if someone doesn’t show up where they are supposed to be, is late, or even sends a text or call requesting emergency help, their colleagues and business associates can be better-informed about the situation they are in and more well-positioned to offer help.
“The sooner people come and know that you’re missing, the faster they’re going to be able to come in that window and help you,” Booher said.
Notify colleagues and supervisors “who, what, where, and when”
In addition to agents sharing their schedules with supervisors and colleagues, whenever an agent heads out on a client meeting or even to bring a client back to their office, they should notify others in advance of what they are doing, where they are going, and with whom, according to the Real Estate Safety Guide prepared by the Washington Realtors association.
This association founded a new Real Estate Safety Council in the wake of the brutal stabbing murder of Bellevue-based agent Mike Emert in 2001, while he was showing a home.
As the organization’s guide states: “Make sure you tell someone where you are going, who you are going with and when you will be back. Whenever possible, make sure the client knows you have shared this information with someone. You are less likely to be attacked if the criminal knows you will be missed and he/she can be identified.”
Be spatially aware — keep clients in front of you
When agents meet with clients, they should always make sure it’s a space that they’ve been to before and if possible, get there early to understand the layout.
Also: make sure all the doors are unlocked, Booher said.
“I’ve heard from real estate agents that have walked into a house, the client comes in behind them and locks the door,” said Booher. “Right there, you need an escape plan. You need to get out right away. You need to make a beeline for the backdoor but that assumes you know where it is and it’s unlocked.”
When showing a home, the temptation for many agents is to lead the clients through. But if an agent is alone especially, they should have clients walk into hallways and rooms first, and be the first to exit.
Use what you’ve got — starting with your smartphone
Agents should always carry a smartphone, if they have one, and make sure they are aware of the built-in emergency call features on their device.
For Apple smartphones, here’s how to quickly make an emergency call:
iPhone 8 and newer:
- Press and hold the side button and a volume buttons until the Emergency SOS slider appears.
- Drag the Emergency SOS slider to call emergency services.
- If you continue to hold down the side button and Volume button, instead of dragging the slider, a countdown begins and an alert sounds. If you hold down the buttons until the countdown ends, your iPhone automatically calls emergency services.
iPhone 7 and older
- Rapidly press the sleep/wake button (located on the side or the top of your device) five times. The Emergency SOS slider will appear.
- Drag the Emergency SOS slider to call emergency services.
For Android smartphones:
- The vast majority of Android smartphone models have an emergency call button located on the “Lock Screen.”
- Set up a passcode on the phone, pull up the lock screen and you’ll see an “Emergency Call” button located below the number pad.
In NAR’s 2018 Safety Report, 47 percent of respondents said they used a smartphone safety app to track their whereabouts and alert colleagues in case of an emergency, up from 44 percent in 2017.
The most commonly used apps included Find My iPhone, Family Locator GPS Tracker for Android, HomeSnap Pro (specifically the Safety Timer feature), SentriSmart (which can connect to and open Realtor lockboxes) and Life360.
While these apps can help broadcast a person’s location to others, set timers, and unlock locks, they are no substitute for having the attention to make an emergency call if a dangerous situation arises.
Use the buddy system
While Berberian uses smartphone safety apps, she cautions that there are many times agents are in a house and there is no internet or cellular service. The phone is no good if an agent is in a basement with poor signal trying to make an emergency call, she said.
The trainer said the most reliable things of all the tools out there are well supported “buddy systems.”
“We have showing partners that are tracked in our system, our agents are incredibly supportive of each other and are very responsible with setting expectations to do those initial meetings.”
Consider video surveillance
Beverly Carter’s son, Carl Carter Jr, founder of the Beverly Carter Foundation, said he has seen an uptick in agents using video surveillance during their open houses, such as nanny cams or other home security cameras.
“I use an Amazon Cloud Camera in conjunction with a ‘This open house under surveillance’ sign and I’m certain that it has an impact on deterring crime,” he said.
Trust your instincts
If anything from an agent’s conversation or first meeting with a client causes concern, Booher says they shouldn’t worry about being judged as rude, just stop working with that person.
“What we have found with folks in these fields, customer services, is that sometimes they’re hesitant to do that or they’ll blow off their initial instinct and say ‘I don’t want to be judgmental or be rude,’” said Booher. “In actuality, your body is hardwired with intuition and instinct that is designed to keep you alive. If you discount that based on some societal construct you do so at your own peril.”
For Keller Williams Omaha agent Sherri Hinkel, she thought she had done her due diligence on a young man who she agreed to meet directly at a home last October. But not until she had had three telephone conversations with him prior, asking him a lot of questions, and double checking his responses.
But as soon as she met him at the house she knew something was wrong. His initial eye contact with her was uncomfortably intense and sent up a big red flag. She kept him in front of her as they toured the house, but he continued to raise her personal alarm bells.
When he unbuckled his belt as he went into a downstairs room, Hinkel called off the tour, went out to the porch, texted the listing agent and told her to call 911.
The scariest thing about the whole situation, Hinkel told Inman, was that the police didn’t arrive immediately. It took the listing agent telling them it was a sexual assault situation that did the trick.
As a former nurse who had taken personal safety and self-defense courses before, she said that having a no-nonsense and firm attitude was key to getting her out of that situation.
“The message is, “You can’t intimidate me, I’m in control.” They don’t want someone who is a hassle, they want an easy mark, ” said Hinkel who recommends the book “The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence,” by Gavin de Becker.
Here are some additional resources that agents can consult with strategies for staying safe:
- Real Estate Safety Council Personal Safety Guide (Washington Realtors)
- Realtor safety tips from Redfin (Safewise)
- 56 safety tips for Realtors (NAR)
- Realtor Safety Program (NAR) which includes some free webinars and video courses for members
How brokerages can ensure agent safety
To help safety remain top of mind, NAR recommends that each brokerage has a safety committee and it notes in its report that Realtors were more likely to say that their offices had proactive procedures in place this year (71 percent) than last year (66 percent).
However, in Inman’s targeted survey, less than 10 percent of respondents’ brokerages had a safety committee. Three quarters felt that if their brokerage had a safety committee or a person whose job was committed to the issue it would mean agent safety was more top of mind.
“Realtors understand better than anyone the safety risks associated with real estate transactions. Because of that, it is imperative for members to share safety protocols with homebuyers so they can learn about what they may encounter during the home buying process,” he said.
Carter is an advocate of this approach.
“I find that many agents shy away from having the safety talk with their clients because they don’t want to make them afraid or simply because it’s an unpracticed conversation and it feels awkward,” Carter said, “While I have a safety wish list as long as my arm, I’d place this on there for sure.”
Faranda, who besides serving as president of the Beverly Carter Foundation is the broker owner of J. Philip Real Estate in New York, said brokerages should be creating a culture where an agent feels they have the support of the broker if they need to say no to a client who won’t follow the requested initial meeting protocol.
“I never want the agents to feel bashful or timid about asking for help,” he said.
He doesn’t agree with the argument that agents are independent contractors and should work out their own safety procedures.
“Being an independent contractor means you can can write off your car mileage and dry cleaning, it doesn’t mean the brokerage can write off their responsibilities to their agents,” he said.
Redfin has long had a system of safety protocols for its agents while also offering safety training to review tips and best practices.
The company’s agents manage their schedules and appointments through Redfin’s Agent Tools software, which works as a safety feature by allowing managers and co-workers to see where they are.
“It is well communicated to agents that if they ever feel uncomfortable in a situation that they should trust their instincts, leave the situation immediately and call their manager,” a Redfin spokeswoman said.
Preventing wire fraud and protecting client information
Although there have been substantial efforts in recent years by NAR and other companies, brokerages and real estate organizations to educate agents about physical safety, one oft-overlooked area of the job concerns information security — both of agents and their clients.
The most immediate threat for agents and buyers to watch out for is wire fraud — wherein a scammer uses telecommunications “wires” such as phone lines or the internet to convince a homebuyer, renter, mortgage recipient, attorney, or even a seller or another party to a transaction to send money to the scammer’s bank account, or to give up financial account information that the scammer can therein access.
Real estate agents need to watch out for scammers hacking their emails or setting up dummy emails similar to theirs to trick their legitimate clients into giving up money or information. In fact, one broker was sued over wire fraud for not securing his email accounts.
And yes, even experienced agents and brokers can be victims of wire fraud themselves. Rich Hopen, a broker and agent at Redfin, related his own harrowing story of being victimized when he sold his house in an Inman article earlier this year. As he related, here is one way that wire fraud can occur:
Wire fraud criminals get access to the email accounts of any parties involved in the real estate transaction. This includes employees at real estate brokerages, title companies, mortgage companies, settlement companies and law firms (in states which have lawyers at closings).
After the criminal gains access to email accounts, they monitor the email communication among the parties. They patiently wait for an email that has attached instructions to wire money. They download the instructions and change the payment information.
A fake email account of one of the parties is created. (It might be someone from the title company, a settlement agent, a real estate agent or an attorney.) The email will contain “updated” wiring instructions and will be sent to whomever will be making the payment. For example, it could be sent to the buyer who is wiring the down payment before closing.
Steps for catching wire fraud before it happens
Fortunately, there are resources to help bolster agent and client information security as well. NAR, for example, maintains an updated page of wire fraud notices and alerts across the U.S. By checking this page, agents can help monitor potential fraud and inform their clients of the types of scams they should be on alert for.
According an NBC report last year featuring an interview with FBI money laundering chief John Barnacle, here are some strategies for clients and agents to avoid wire fraud:
- Verify everything — don’t assume emailed instructions are legitimate. If buyers or renters receive wire instructions, they should call up the sender and audibly verify the email they are looking at is authentic. Use another means of communication than the one being verified.
- Be suspicious of sudden changes to the plan — especially if a property is closing. Most parties don’t want last-minute adjustments, so if they appear, you need to re-verify that they are authentic with whoever is requesting the changes. Again, use a different method of communication than the one being verified.
- Use a secure portal to send documents. Many large companies offer these, so agents and clients should ask their participating institutions if they offer them.
- Use strong passwords and make sure your computer and smartphone software is updated to the latest versions.
- Consider secure payment methods, such as a certified check or cashier’s check for an in-person close, rather than just wiring money — if this is an option for the transaction.
Separately, but cited in many other information safety guides is this advice:
- Avoid connecting to public Wi-Fi networks on your computer, especially when conducting sensitive financial business. Many of these public networks offered by cafes or local organizations can be exploited by clever hackers and scammers, who can access an agent or client’s computer and steal information.
If a client suspects they are a victim of wire fraud, they need to act quickly — ideally within minutes of the fraud being detected. Here are some steps suggested in a guide published by CertifID, a real estate software company that offers a realtime identity authentication platform for transactions.
- A client should contact their bank (from which the funds were sent) and have a “fraud alert” sent to the receiving bank.
- File a complaint online with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at https://www.ic3.gov/complaint/default.aspx/ and save the complaint number.
- The client should call up their local FBI field office (guide here) and tell them about the complaint, providing the number.
- The client should call their personal lawyer and find out if they should file an injunctive order/temporary restraining order against the recipient bank, to prevent them from transferring the funds further or allowing them to be withdrawn.
- Contact the recipient bank and request a “fraud freeze” on the transfer.
- Contact local police and alert them of the situation.
Be aware of other information security holes
If listing a home for sale, agents should also help protect their clients’ information during the home sale process. Someone going through the home can learn the child’s school and their roster from calendars left out – but people don’t think of that, said Berberian.
“I have had feedback from agents that it’s a complete game changer because a lot of agents don’t bring it up,” said the Lamacchia Realty trainer, who still sells homes herself.
Berberian would like to see more open dialogue with buyers and sellers about what agents are doing to keep themselves and their clients safe.
With additional reporting by Patrick Kearns.