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‘Be Safe’ Extends to Online Activity

While working from home, use these tips to safeguard video calls, watch out for coronavirus-related scams, and protect your business in case of data breaches.

May 13, 2020

Even as state governors begin to relax stay-at-home restrictions and move to slowly reopen business, the real estate industry has adapted to what is likely a long-term shift to more virtual means of conducting transactions. For the foreseeable future, agents and brokers will be using apps like Zoom, FaceTime, and others as primary tools to communicate with clients and colleagues. But because these apps are susceptible to security issues, personal and business safety is no less a concern.

Instances of “Zoombombing”—in which intruders hijack a Zoom video call and post hate speech and offensive images—have been a problem recently, and those hosting a Zoom call are responsible for controlling the security of their events. Burton Kelso, owner of technology company Integral in Lee’s Summit, Mo., offers a few tips:

  1. Disable Zoom participants’ ability to share and record video and audio.
  2. Block participants from joining the call late.
  3. Use a different, randomly generated Zoom ID for every call
  4. Require meeting participants to wait in a Zoom “waiting room” until the meeting starts.
  5. Assign a password each time to access the event.

Zoom data breaches are another type of security risk surfacing. This isn’t necessarily a hacker breaking into the Zoom platform but a criminal who gleans personal information from someone’s social media accounts and uses it to guess the person’s Zoom login data. So, be careful how much revealing information you include on social media profiles.

What Shouldn’t Be Visible in Your Video Stream

Since, in many instances, clients can’t physically visit homes because of stay-at-home orders, agents are using video walkthroughs to document and show as much detail of a property as possible. Remember that criminals are looking for these videos, too, for the opportunity to case homes virtually.

Stacey Johnson-Cosby, GRI, a sales associate with ReeceNichols in Kansas City, Mo., advises keeping a brisk pace during the walkthrough and taking care not to reveal too much of the homeowner’s personal property. For example, avoid showing valuables such as jewelry, expensive clothing in closets, art collections, and weapons like a gun rack. Take the same precautions yourself if you’re making videos or participating in live video meetings from your own home.

The Dangers of Live Video

Going live is an excellent opportunity for agents to be present and in the moment while providing great hyperlocal content. However, going live can be a concern, especially if you’re broadcasting from a location other than your home, because you’re not only telling the world where you are at the moment—but where you’re not. That can leave your home vulnerable to burglary.

Agents should make sure their home is secure and locked in case a burglar decides to target their home, knowing they are not there. Since stalking can be an issue with real estate agents, keep your location private when going live. Kama Burton, SFR, a sales associate with Pro-One Investments in Riverside, Calif., chooses not to share the address of open houses or showings. “I give the particulars of the home and tell visitors to fill out the online form or comment for more information,” Burton says. “Then I can use that information as a lead capture.” She also advises turning off the GPS on your phone when live.

Beware of Social Engineering Posts

Social media is designed to be a place to connect and share. But some innocent posts may inadvertently solicit personal information that criminals can use to guess your passwords. Think twice if a user is encouraging others to post photos of their first car, senior pictures, or age comparison. These items often provide clues to the answers to your security questions, which are designed to help reset passwords and gain reentry to financial accounts. Be cautious about the nature of posts like these and consider how criminals could use such information.

Cybersecurity in the Age of the Coronavirus

John Torvi, vice president of marketing and sales at the Herbert H. Landy Insurance Agency, warns that cybercriminals have registered thousands of internet domain names using the terms “COVID” and “coronavirus” and related terms for phishing activities. Greater care must be taken in opening links and attachments. “With people working at home, security protocols used in the office setting may be relaxed or absent, especially if people are using personal computers,” Torvi says. “This is partly due to system limitations, but people also may develop a more relaxed attitude about things in general if working at home in their pajamas and slippers.”

This is why virtual technology companies may be useful to individual salespeople or small- and medium-sized brokerages. Smaller companies without formal IT teams may consider outsourcing those services; Kelso has clients throughout the U.S. who consider such services essential in their operations.

Torvi says that with more companies than ever working online, cyber insurance policies are important to help cover a business’s liability in the event of cyber fraud or a data breach. “There are limitations that need to be addressed as part of regular practices and procedures. If staff members or agents are working on a personal computer for company business, there may be no coverage,” Torvi says. He advises real estate companies to have a cyber policy that the brokers regularly review for coverage language and issues.

A Safer ‘New Normal’

“With limited in-person house viewings, now buyers must be preapproved and/or have a contingent offer,” says Regina P. Brown, a sales associate with California Coast & Country Homes in Carlsbad, Calif. “That allows us to require buyers to be qualified and serious—something we have always wanted anyway. Pop-up buyers and looky-loos are a thing of the past.”

Most services related to real estate are now being done virtually as well. Title companies have accommodated drive-thru closings and socially distant meetings in their parking lots as clients stay in their cars. “Luckily for us, we are in the business of providing one of life’s bare necessities: shelter,” Brown says. “I worked with a client who needed to notarize documents. That was quite an experience! We all wore face masks, kept our distance, and the notary sanitized everything before and after. Business is still being done—just differently."

Tracey Hawkins

Tracey Hawkins, a.k.a. "Tracey, the Safety Lady," is founder and CEO of Safety and Security Source. She is a former real estate agent who, for more than 24 years, has been a national speaker, educator and real estate safety expert. She has created the country's only real estate safety designation, the Consumer Safety and Security Specialist (CSSS) program, as well as the Broker, Manager, and Owner Certification Workshop with an Office Safety Policy Handbook.