7 Dangerous Practices You Think Are Safe

These seemingly innocent ways of operating can actually make you more vulnerable to thieves and other criminals who look at you as a target.

Every time I talk about REALTOR® Safety, I remind real estate professionals that the Department of Labor considers real estate sales and leasing a “hazardous” occupation. Although there are many common and obvious dangers in real estate, there are also scenarios you may not consider risky that are in reality. Here are seven such situations to keep in mind. As a real estate safety instructor for more than 20 years, you can also visit my website to request a checklist to protect yourself from many of these dangers.

1. Leaving your belongings unattended at an open house—or even in the office. You’re going to be distracted while helping potential buyers at an open house, which provides the perfect window of opportunity for thieves. While you may think walking away from your laptop, tablet, purse, or briefcase for even just a moment is innocent enough, these items can too easily disappear—particularly when you have heavy foot traffic. Carry electronics that are easy to hold onto as you show open house visitors around, and keep your bags out of sight—in a trunk or in a drawer.

Your own real estate office, where agents often leave valuable electronics at their desks, can also be an attraction for criminals and crimes of opportunity. You may trust your fellow agents—but what about all the other people who come into your office off the street? In July, brokerages in Arkansas and North Carolina were broken into and robbed. Also in Arkansas, a group of about 10 thieves unlocked windows and found other property vulnerabilities at an open house so they could later re-enter. “I actually always carry my purse around the office,” says Barbara Wonderly, a sales associate with Keller Williams Preferred Realty in Raleigh, N.C. “I never know who is going to be in the office—clients, service providers, vendors, or contractors. I would rather be on the safe side.”

2. Relying on your cell phone in case of emergency while showing rural properties. Cell service is often shoddy or nonexistent in sparsely populated, secluded areas. You can’t automatically expect to be able to call for help or use safety apps on your smartphone when you’re out in these areas. Remember that your phone’s GPS won’t work well, so bring printed maps with you when you’re in a rural setting. Also, consider bringing electronic cell boosters to increase signal strength, and have a check-in buddy who knows the address where you are and can arrange to send law enforcement if you fail to check in at a predetermined time.

3. Only working the “good” part of town. If you sell primarily in upscale neighborhoods with high-income residents, you can be lulled into a false sense of security. You may think your chances of dealing with crime in a tony part of town are slim to none. That’s actually entirely untrue. Criminals often target upscale areas because of the potential payday in high-value items. While it may be true that some neighborhoods are safer than others, you should never let your guard down. Two high-profile murder cases in the last few years involved real estate agents in high-end communities. In 2011, Ashley Okland, an agent in Des Moines, Iowa, was killed in a model townhome. And in 2014, Arkansas agent Beverly Carter was kidnapped and killed; her assailants later said they targeted her because she was a “rich broker” known for working in pricier markets. (Read about how Carter’s son, Carl Carter Jr., has made REALTOR® Safety his mission since his mother’s death.)

4. Using shared technology carelessly. Wonderly warns that sharing office computers, for example, can put your clients’ information at risk if you forget to log out. “I use the office computers, and often, the agent who previously used it forgets to log out,” she explains. “All of their personal and business information is there for anyone to see. So I always log them out [if they haven’t done it themselves].” Think about the incidents mentioned above involving break-ins at real estate offices. If you haven’t logged out of your computers and other devices you may leave at your desk, those thieves will have access to your clients’ highly sensitive information.

5. Thinking daytime showings are safer than nighttime showings. Lane Gamble, an agent in Charlotte, N.C., was robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight in March as he sat outside of a listing. In fact, most crimes against real estate professionals occur during daytime hours, including the murders mentioned earlier. Many practitioners believe nighttime showings require more safety precautions, such as alerting a friend or loved one of their whereabouts, carrying a safety tool or weapon, and planning an escape route in case of emergency. The truth is these measures should be taken at all times, day or night. The daytime can be more opportune for criminals to attack because they know you’re probably less guarded at that time.

6. Dismissing suspicious incidents that don’t result in an attack. In August, two REALTOR® associations in Massachusetts issued safety alerts to their members after several agents reported having strange run-ins with the same prospective buyer. Even if someone behaving suspiciously doesn’t harm you, it’s possible that they are testing their method before launching an attack. Reporting suspicious incidents can help organizations take action to prevent further—and possibly more dangerous—episodes with other real estate professionals. Don’t ignore uncomfortable situations in the field; report them to your association leaders.

7. Not having emergency roadside equipment. You spend much of your day in the car, but do you have the tools you need in case your vehicle breaks down? Many agents fail to carry basic items such as jumper cables, a tire air compressor, or a tire jack. Roadside emergency assistance is highly recommended. You’re known as a person who is always on the go in your community, and criminals know it’s easy to take advantage of someone who is in a hurry and in distress. Make sure you have the proper equipment when you’re in a bind out in the field so you don’t find yourself in a vulnerable situation, having to rely on the help of complete strangers.