Robert Siciliano, Co-Founder, Protect Now.
Illustration by Lanette Behiry/Real Estate News

Personal and cyber safety are connected — here's how to protect yourself 

It's critical to understand the many types of threats facing real estate professionals and the strategies to avoid becoming a victim.

September 9, 2023
5 minutes

Real estate agents face some of the greatest criminal threats of any industry. 

Sound like an overstatement? Consider this: Agents not only encounter personal risks in meeting clients, hosting open houses and showing properties, they are also susceptible to cybercrimes involving their personal information and client data. 

September and October — NAR's Agent Safety Month and Cybersecurity Awareness Month — offer opportunities for agents to sharpen their defensive skills. Personal safety and cyber safety may seem like two separate areas, but they intersect, and many of the skills that provide protection in one area can be applied to the other.

Personal and cybersafety: By the numbers

NAR's 2022 Member Safety Report shed some interesting light on the real estate industry's efforts to protect agents and client data.

  • 67% of respondents knew their agency's procedures to protect client data, but only 52% knew their agency's safety procedures.

  • More agencies have procedures in place to protect client data than procedures focused on agent safety (92% vs. 83%).

  • Half of the NAR members surveyed carry a self-defense weapon.

  • 2% of Realtors were victims of a crime while working (that's over 30,000 incidents!); identity theft was the most common cybercrime reported.

  • Of those who were victims of a crime, 30% said it occurred after receiving a threatening or inappropriate email, text, phone call or voicemail; this was the most common precursor to a criminal act.

The numbers point to an industry that is far more aware of cyber risks than personal safety risks. Given the proliferation of cybercrime, this makes some sense, but it may also leave agents wondering how best to protect themselves from all of the possible threats they face.

The good news is that lessons learned in one aspect of safety often apply to another. Some criminals use a computer, some use a weapon, but all behave in the same basic way: Through coercion, deception or intimidation, they try to take what they want from you. 

Understanding their behaviors and motivations is key to protecting yourself.

5 ways to reduce your risks — of any type of crime

These strategies, which you may already use to deter one kind of crime, can also be used to stop another.

1. Trust your instincts

Did a client send an unusual email asking for information? Has an in-person meeting suddenly been moved to an unfamiliar place? Real estate agents strive to be flexible and accommodating in the name of good customer service, but those tendencies provide opportunity for criminals. 

Most people recognize a situation that seems unusual or irregular. Trust your gut, and ask what may seem like an uncomfortable question or do some extra digging — that's how most fraud gets caught.

2. Put a second set of eyes on unusual communications

Most real estate agents bring someone along if they are meeting a client for the first time or meeting in a remote location. The buddy system is one of the best tools for personal safety, and it works for cybersecurity as well. 

If you receive an unusual email, text or online message, run it past someone else. Ask them simply, "Can you look at this and tell me what you think?" The goal is to have the other person provide a neutral opinion on the suspect communications rather than confirm your bias.

3. Protect sensitive information

Prescription drug theft at open houses and private showings is a known problem in the real estate industry. What many agents may not know is that data theft can happen whenever someone walks into your office. 

Passwords, usernames and client information should never be left where other people can see it — think Post-It notes, whiteboards or sheets of paper left in printers. It is best to keep all client data online, accessible only via password with two-factor authentication. If you must keep printed or handwritten information, it should stay in a locked drawer or filing cabinet unless you are using it.

4. Always go to the source

If you are selling a property and your client's brother-in-law calls out of the blue to change the listing price or availability, you would not make that change without first discussing it directly with your client. 

Follow the same rule when you receive emails or texts claiming there is a problem with an order, a delivery or an account. Never click on those links. Go directly to the official website of the business, log in, and see if there is a problem. 

5. Never rely on a stranger for your safety

Most agents will refuse to meet a new client in a remote location that lacks reliable phone service. Follow this same rule online. 

One popular scam involves pop-up messages that tell you your computer has been locked or needs immediate updates, along with a phone number to call to resolve the "problem." If you call, you will be talking to a criminal who will attempt to take control of your device, stealing information and locking you out of it. If you encounter this scam, quit your browser or restart your computer.

These examples illustrate the common threads in criminal attacks, as well as a central element in all criminal attacks: vulnerability. Criminals want to isolate you and force or trick you into making decisions that go against your best interests. 

In the majority of cases, making things harder for criminals, either by securing items of value or enlisting someone else's help, convinces them to move on to an easier target.

Robert Siciliano is the head of training and co-founder of Protect Now, a cybersecurity employee training company that provides CE-eligible training tailored to the real estate industry. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author.

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