Real estate brokers and agents have hyped certain safety protocols in an effort to beef up personal security in the field, but some of the ideas that have become popular in the industry don’t necessarily make you less vulnerable to an attack. In fact, some may have the opposite effect.
It’s not that these suggestions don’t have any value in the pursuit of safer practices, but none of them are foolproof. You shouldn’t rely too heavily on any one safety practice; to truly conduct business in a safer manner, you must incorporate a multitude of safety measures. As a longtime real estate safety educator, I offer these five personal security myths, along with my suggestions for how to work around them.
Myth #1: Meeting at the Office
The misconception: Meeting prospects at the office first will enable you to vet them properly and ensure you work with only legitimate clients.
The reality: While it’s always a good idea to ask prospective clients to come to your office or meet in a public place before taking them out on showings, you are not equipped to properly vet prospects to determine whether they are criminals. Making judgment calls based on how a person looks, acts or talks is not a science, and while you may be able to spot obvious red flags during a face-to-face meeting, you cannot guarantee that a prospect won’t intend to do you harm. Many offenders are repeat or career criminals, and they know how to present themselves in a manner that makes you feel comfortable and safe. Never consider yourself 100% safe after meeting with a prospect.
The solution: Asking for a prospect’s ID and mortgage approval letter can provide some clues as to their legitimacy as a client, but you should do background research on new customers to get a fuller picture of who they are. Searching for them on Google is the typical place to start, but also search court records and public documents online as well as sites such as Anywho.com and Spokeo.com, which combine public records, social network information and other online references.
If you want to go a step further, some customer relationship management tools provide prescreened customer leads, using a program that conducts a soft background check on potential clients and delivers a report of the findings to you. Though this decreases the level of danger in the prospecting process, you must remain alert and vigilant once you begin working with a new client.
Myth #2: Code Words
The misconception: Using a code word is a good way to discreetly signal you’re in distress.
The reality: Who doesn’t know what the “red file” is? It’s probably the most commonly used safety code word—and not just in the real estate industry—so you can bet criminals know what it means. Could you use a less conspicuous code word? Sure. But here’s the problem with code words in general: In a perfect world, the person you’re calling for help will immediately know that the code word means they should call authorities and have them dispatched to your location. That requires everyone at your office—brokers, agents and support staff—to be properly and uniformly trained on the code word procedure. How likely is that to happen?
The solution: Unfortunately, when you make that call using your safety code word, there’s a high risk that the person on the other end of the line will have no idea what you’re talking about. If you can safely make a phone call and talk to someone—even briefly—your best option is to call 911 and give police as much information as possible about your situation. If you can’t speak freely, try using apps such as Life 360, which sends covert notifications to your predesignated contacts.
Myth #3: The Role of Technology
The misconception: Safety apps are a reliable security method in an emergency situation.
The reality: While apps are a good tool in the real estate professional’s safety arsenal, the problem is that some agents rely solely on them for protection. But if you’re in a situation where your cell phone isn’t accessible, you lose a signal or a criminal takes your phone away, those apps become useless.
The solution: Safety apps should be part of a layered security plan for yourself and your business. They can be good tools to support a larger, holistic personal safety plan—but you should never rely on apps alone to save you.
Myth #4: Putting on Airs
The misconception: Dressing to impress will always attract the right customer.
The reality: For real estate professionals, the appearance of being successful is an important marketing tactic. Do you broadcast on social media how many millions of dollars in real estate you’ve sold? If you’re a luxury agent, do you take marketing photos of yourself in a high-end car or in front of a mansion?
Wearing expensive jewelry, watches and other accessories, or carrying around costly gadgets such as tablets and high-end cameras, may project the image you want your clients to see. But it can also garner unwanted attention from criminals who see the cash you’ve got on you. If you think dressing to impress will only attract people who are qualified to work with you, you’re wrong.
The solution: Dress professionally, but leave the bling and flash at home. And you typically don’t need expensive devices—aside from your smartphone—when you’re out on showings with a client. Limit the places you take your gear. While trend-conscious clients may appreciate your fashion forwardness, the people you want to attract will be more interested in your service than your cachet.
Myth #5: Avoiding ‘Bad’ Areas
The misconception: Avoiding working in the “bad” parts of town will lessen your odds of becoming a victim of an attack.
The reality: I always get agents in my classes who tell me they don’t do business in dangerous neighborhoods and never work at night, so they feel safe. These same agents also say they don’t work with “strange” or “scary looking” people. As long as criminals are mobile, there is no safe part of town. Some areas may be safer than others, but agents need to be alert wherever they are. The worst thing you can do is let down your guard because you think you’re in a nice neighborhood; some criminals target higher-end areas where they can find more valuable items. They also may perceive agents who work those markets to be wealthier.
Your prejudgments on what kinds of people look legit may also cause you to miss out on business. I always reference Sam Walton, the late founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club, and his signature overalls and old pick-up truck. Many may have assumed based on his appearance that he couldn’t afford high-end property. By the same token, famed serial killer Ted Bundy cleaned up quite nicely.
The solution: Instead of judging people or neighborhoods by their appearance, agents should rely on taking the proper screening steps and always trust their intuition, gut or instinct. We all possess a built-in warning system designed to protect us from danger. Too often, we ignore that feeling in the pit of our stomachs. If your body sends these signals, listen to them and get out of the situation. Do not try to rationalize your feelings.