By Riki Markowitz
In 2010, San Antonio REALTOR Janice Tisdale was having a typical workday and an appointment with a potential buyer and, supposedly, his banker. The house was in an upscale neighborhood with a $750,000 price tag. Instead of a walking away with a commission, Tisdale barely escaped with her life.
Unfortunately, this is a very common fear for real estate professionals. As one may easily assume, REALTORS are ripe for being a crime victim since one of the main components of the job is meeting with strangers in empty homes.
Over the past few years, app developers have created all sorts of tools agents can use to help ensure their safety. Self-defense schools advertise martial arts classes for agents, and agents even appear on local news programs touting the importance of carrying weapons from Tasers to pepper spray and guns. And still, just 12 percent of female and 25 percent of male REALTORS say they carry a gun, according to the National Association of REALTORS (NAR). Yet the numbers of crime and potential crime victims do not seem to budge much and the fear of becoming a victim is as high as ever.
The key to REALTOR safety is much more behavioral than buffing up or carrying a weapon. After all, if you need to put someone in a headlock or aim your taser, you’re already deeply in danger. The crop of apps that have debuted over the past few years can be similarly as impotent. The possible outcomes when an agent taps an alarm button on their smartphone alerting co-workers or law enforcement that something is off are 1: Help will arrive in, hopefully, 10 to 30 minutes, or 2: When someone does arrive, your quirky but non-violent client fires you (and maybe even tells his network about the incident). Thanks to the extensive research of repeat violent offenders, including interviews conducted by Lee Goldstein, CEO of Real Safe Agent, we know a lot more about potential attackers. For instance, we know that this type of crime is not impulsive. Not only do perpetrators plan their crimes with precision, but they also get away with many offenses before they get caught.
Even after a run-in or two with law enforcement, the standards for placing someone on a criminal database can be high — at least from the point of view of potential victims. A study of nearly 1,900 undetected and self-reported sexual assault predators found that most “raped more than once” and were also likely to commit other violent offenses. “Repeat rapists each committed an average of six rapes and/or attempted rapes,” plus 14 violent acts. According to Goldstein, one individual he interviewed committed rape 23 times before he was arrested for the first time.
To be clear, the violent predators featured in a lot of the research out there do not only target real estate agents. Anecdotally, however, REALTORS are very easy marks for a variety of reasons. For one thing, agents are often alone in empty houses or can be lured to an empty home without the request sounding suspicious or creepy. Also, as part of a comprehensive marketing strategy, many REALTORS have social media sites that give predators much of the information they need to court and engage endless numbers of potential victims. And because these offenders are very good at acting charismatic, then friendly people, like real estate agents, can be easy to dupe.
So knowing what you’re up against, what can you do to stay safe? NAR has a list of 56 tips which is a great place to start. “When you have a new client, ask him/her to stop by your office and complete a Prospect Identification Form and photocopy their driver’s license.” Also, be sure your public social media accounts are thoroughly professional and your personal accounts are viewable only to friends and family.
Goldstein urges agents to post a straightforward, professional headshot rather than personal photos and reveal very little personal information about yourself. Many agents will list hobbies on their bios. But rather than saying that you enjoy trips to Disneyland with your husband and three daughters, keep it simple and vague. Say that you enjoy travel, gardening and working out. When you give out specific details, predators use that to manipulate you into revealing even more information. Remember that if you mention where you went to high school, it’s easy enough for a stranger to track down a few names and trick you into thinking you have friends in common.
Unfortunately, the characteristics that many speakers on crime-prevention circuits will tell you to avoid are not necessarily the predators that tend to ambush REALTORS in an empty home. For example, they’re not hard-on-their-luck drug addicts or young and impulsive crooks that want your money and jewelry. Violent predators are in this line of work for the feeling of control and power.
The best way to prevent becoming a victim is the one thing real estate agents can’t do: refuse to be alone with strangers. It doesn’t help that a percentage of clients always just seem “off,” or strange, especially when you’re actively looking for red flags. Here are some ways to be safe when you’re alone with clients:
• Always keep the person within sight and in front of you. Invite him to enter a room ahead of you while you trail behind. Try not to turn your back to the client.
• Observe his language and word choices. Predators are manipulative and can even be demanding. Instead of asking if you would show the bedroom, he may say, “take me to see the bedroom.”
• Don’t comply with strange requests. If the client wants a lift or wants to give you a lift — for any reason — simply offer to call him a car. According to NAR, agents should always take their own car to a showing.
• Have an exit strategy. One of the most popular is the emergency phone call. Say, “I’m sorry, I need to take a private call outside. Please take your time.” He doesn’t believe you? That’s not your concern. Just leave the house — and drive away if you’re that uncomfortable.
• While you’re at a showing, don’t park your car in a way that can get you blocked in.
The WAV Group did a Real Estate Victimization Study in 2017 and found that “about one in 20 study respondents have been a victim of crime while selling or leasing real estate.” Nearly 20 percent said when they were in situations where they felt uncomfortable or unsafe, they stayed put because they didn’t want to risk losing the sale.
Marilyn Wilson, a founding partner at the WAV Group, said that more than half of the agents surveyed said they want safety support from their broker or association — more than lead generation, online marketing and transaction management. But only 48 percent of agents say they’ve taken a REALTOR safety course. If these numbers show anything, it’s that there’s no shortage of odd characters out there. Being safe starts with identifying those strangers with the potential to cause harm. RL