Don’t be afraid to use video conferencing tools, but understand how they work, how they can be abused, and how to minimize the nonsense and maximize the good.

Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.

A month ago “zoom” was a verb that meant to move swiftly. Like the 3-year-old who would zoom around on his tricycle — quite possibly while relentlessly screaming the actual word, “Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!”

Today, Zoom has a whole new meaning: “Let’s get on a Zoom and talk about this,” or “Crap, almost time to Zoom, and I haven’t combed my hair in three days.”

Much to the delight of its shareholders, Zoom (the company, not the verb) has become the defacto standard for video conferencing. There are other options, and more are certain to come as schools and businesses search for ways to remain viable during this pandemic.

Sadly, as video conferencing software explodes in popularity and usage, the ugly side of humanity has raised its ugly head.

Yes, the scammers, spammers and idiots are taking advantage, exploiting software and new users alike in an effort to do whatever it is that bozos like this do. Here are a few things to watch out for.

Zoombombing

Can you believe “Zoombombing” is a thing? This is where people break into meetings uninvited and disrupt them.

They’ll share screens with racist or pornographic content or disturbing images. They’ll shout and take over conversations in rooms.

Don’t ask yourself why someone would do this because it will never make sense to anyone with a normal mind. It’s important to be aware that it happens, and there are some things you can do to minimize the chances of it occurring.

  • Don’t share the meeting URL in public: I totally get it. We’re isolated and want human interaction. I’ve attended a couple of “virtual happy hours” via video conferencing, and it’s a wonderful way to stay in touch with friends and escape this craziness that surrounds us. So we post a link to our little online party, and share it on Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere. You’ve just given the scammers and trolls an invitation to your meeting. The less public the meeting URL, the less likely a troublemaker is to find it.
  • Limit screen sharing: Zoom and other video platforms allow screens to be shared with meeting participants. Some software defaults to allowing all to share. The bad people like to use screen sharing to spread messages of hate or images that might be offensive. Set screen sharing to be off by default, and allow the meeting manager to turn sharing on or off as needed for individual users.
  • Lock the meeting: After your meeting starts, you can lock out any new users from joining. Sure, this might negatively impact the chronically late, but it’s a good way to keep bad actors out of your meeting.

The Zoom blog offers lots of tips and techniques to keep your meetings, classes, webinars and even your happy hours safe and free from disruptive trolls.

Chat transcripts

Imagine this scenario. Like many, you’re now working from home. That Zoom meeting is kind of droning on, so you slip into the private chat room and message a couple of funnies back and forth with a coworker. Maybe you poke a little fun at the boss’ outfit.

After the meeting finally wraps up, that boss with the goofy shirt asks you to send out the chat transcript since it contained some useful web links.

Easy peasy! The video software makes it super easy to save the chat file, so off it goes!

Moments later your friend calls you in a panic. It seems the conferencing software includes the contents of your private chats when it saves the file. Now everyone, including your boss with no fashion sense, knows what you were talking about.

This isn’t a made-up scenario. News got out just a few hours after I wrote this that Zoom chat transcripts include your (but no one else’s) private chats. Zoom quickly said his horrifying “feature” would be disabled, but 48 hours later it’s still there.

Be careful when using new software, and never assume it works how you think it should work.

Malware

Within hours of Zoom’s usage and user base exploding with growth, there were software developers already working on how to exploit that growth.

Again, don’t consume any time wondering why these people do what they do. They’re wired to take advantage of others. Just know they’re out there, and they want to steal your passwords and install malware and viruses on your devices.

One way these folks gain access to your computer to wreak havoc is by setting up fake sites. Video conferencing software typically requires every user to install software, and any time software is installed, scammers have an opportunity.

One of their slimy tricks is to set up websites that appear to be official sites of conferencing providers. As always, you should never click links in emails from unknown senders, and you should only install software and updates directly from the provider’s website. And never, ever, give anyone your password. No legit software vendor will ever ask you for your password.

Other privacy and security issues

It seems like every couple of hours there’s some new Zoom or video-conferencing-related privacy issue that surfaces. There’s technical stuff way outside my pay grade like bad encryption, email address leakage and the use of server farms known to contain sketchy players. Literally, as I wrote this, a news alert popped up on my screen about New York City banning the use of Zoom in schools due to security concerns.

Zoom appears to be taking quick action where it can, but it’s been hit with unexpected explosive growth and can’t fix everything immediately, and it certainly can’t change human behavior.

Read Zoom’s blog about what it’s doing, follow its directions for securing meetings, use common sense and exercise caution. We’re entering uncharted waters here, and things are changing swiftly. Take a deep breath, relax, and move forward cautiously.

You don’t need to be afraid to use video conferencing apps and software, but you should understand how it works, how it can be abused, and what you can do to minimize the nonsense and maximize the good. Hang in there, wash your hands, stay healthy, and we’ll get through this mess together.

Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree in Seattle, as well as the one spinning the wheels at Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty. “Retired but not dead,” Jay speaks around the world on many things real estate.

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