While Linda Fercodini was visiting a potential seller at his home, the hair on the back of her neck stood up. After the home owner asked her a dozen times if she wanted something to drink and invited her to join him in the attic, she got a deeply unnerving feeling.
“Then, in the living room on the side of his chair, I saw the photos of women real estate agents circled in red from a local real estate magazine. That was it for me,” says Fercodini, broker-owner of Fercodini Properties Inc. in Wolcott, Conn. “I needed to think quickly and be cool. I started heading back to the kitchen, pretending to take notes. He excused himself to go the bathroom.”
That was her chance. She called her office, but no one answered. Then she called her husband, who knew where she was because she always leaves him the address to where she’s going. When he answered, Fercodini used her code words — “red file” — and he instantly knew she was in trouble. Fercodini made up an excuse to leave, and as she walked down the driveway, her husband was there waiting for her.
A lot of bizarre — even scary and dangerous — things happen to real estate agents every day. Fercodini, who now teaches a continuing education safety course for agents, says she tells stories about incidents that have happened to her and reminds agents to trust their instincts. She also brings in police officers and a karate instructor to demonstrate self-defense moves to her students.
In her own office, she tries to talk about safety at least four times a year. “You have to keep reminding everybody because they get busy and forget. It’s a tough business, and things happen,” she says.
Empower Agents With Knowledge
Recently, one of Candace Adams’ agents had a potential client she was meeting for the first time who asked her to pick him up at a hotel.
“I’ve always told my agents to never go to a hotel or train station or anywhere else to pick someone up, especially if they have not properly vetted them,” says Adams, president and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England and Westchester Properties. She has about 1,700 agents in more than 50 offices in New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
“Most experienced agents will be able to cite an incident that made them feel uncomfortable, whether it was just meeting someone or someone wanting them to go down into the basement with them,” Adams says. As incidents such as the 2014 murder of Little Rock, Ark., agent Beverly Carter get more attention in the news, Adams and her management team are having more conversations about safety with agents at her company. Adams says their policy is to never ride in a car with a client and to always meet a new client for the first time at one of their offices.
Adams admits it’s hard to institute consistent safety policies in such a large company. But she emphasizes using the buddy system when agents go out on showings. “We encourage our agents not to do open houses at remote locations alone or to meet people at vacant properties alone,” she says. Some of their seller clients have installed cameras at their homes and monitor them off-site during open houses. That’s one more level of protection for her agents, she says.
Don’t Discount Your Feelings
Robert Siciliano, CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com, has taught classes on personal security to real estate agents across the country.
“Every person I have ever interviewed that was victimized said they knew something was wrong before it happened. But they didn’t do anything about it,” he says. “They didn’t want to think it could happen to them. But it did.”
He says whether you’re in the middle of Montana or downtown Boston, there are assaults on men and woman happening every minute. According to the FBI, there are 270 serial killers walking the streets every day along with nearly 750,000 sex offenders, and there are 2.2 million burglaries and home invasions every year. “We live in a somewhat violent society. That’s not going to change,” Siciliano says. “But being proactive and putting systems in place can give you a fighting chance.”
Here are 10 suggestions from Siciliano to help you and your agents stay safe on the job:
1. Park your car on the street. Never park in the driveway, where you could be blocked in by another car.
2. Establish a safe word. If you get in a situation that feels uneasy or downright critical, call someone at your agency, a friend, or a significant other and mention the safe word.
3. Never drink or eat anything someone offers at their home. Even the seemingly nicest people may have devious agendas.
4. Ask for names and phone numbers at open houses. Have a pad of paper out, and make sure everyone signs it with his or her information. If they just put their name down and no phone number or email address, walk outside and take down their license plate number.
5. Leave immediately if something happens. If you see someone steal something during an open house, don’t confront him or her, Siciliano says. This person could be in a crisis and could hurt you. Leave the home and call the police. If someone tries to manipulate you to go into the basement or attic, get out as soon as possible. You don’t need to protect the house; you need to protect yourself.
6. Program your phone to call 911. Keep your cell phone in your pocket on the ready so you can call the police at the touch of your finger.
7. Verify customers before meeting them. Require that all new clients send you an image of their ID as well as their current address and phone number so you can vet them online. Verify that their ID matches information you find in public records. At your first meeting, jot down their license plate number and the type of car they drive.
8. Leave the name of the client, the address, and the time of the meeting. Have a “safe person” who always knows your whereabouts. Have them call you every 15 minutes. If you don’t answer, tell them to call police.
9. Prepare an open house with many people. Always have another agent, family member, or friend with you at an open house. Invite all the neighbors to come over to see the house. There is safety in numbers. It’s also an opportunity to network with neighbors in your market. Ask the home owners to turn on their security cameras if they have them.
10. Carry pepper spray or mace. Never shoot into the wind and make sure you can aim it at your target.
For more up-to-date safety tips and information, turn to the National Association of REALTORS®’ safety materials, including webinars and quarterly safety messages. NAR also offers a three-hour safety course for brokers and agents. Learn more at realtor.org/safety.