September 28, 2020

REALTOR® Safety: Are any of us doing enough?



By Mallory Siegfried, Communications Director
 
Before a scheduled open house, an agent first does a walk-through of a vacant property to confirm everything is in order and to turn on all lights. Setting up shop near the front door, the female REALTOR® welcomes a man in his 50s. The man is a little bit of a close talker. Needing more space, she casually backs up and moves herself closer to the door.
 
After pleasantries are exchanged, she watches as the man goes to the basement. When the man reappears upstairs, he is insistent that she go to the basement to see a humidifier that has frozen over. Reflecting on her initial walkthrough, the REALTOR® doesn’t remember seeing what the man describes. Feeling uncomfortable with the man’s persistence, she immediately has her husband on the phone, her keys in hand, and her car unlocked. She tells the man that she needs to step outside to take a phone call.
 
While outside on the phone with her husband, the man exits the property, says goodbye, and leaves. Going back inside – and locking the doors behind her – the agent goes to the basement and finds a humidifier that had, as the man described, frozen over. It’s tucked away in a back room that she did not previously notice.
 
The man was correct, but his persistence in trying to get the REALTOR® to the basement set off red flags and suspicion.
 
“I was so shaken up that I locked up and went home,” said Noelle Seaton, a REALTOR® with Home Team Real Estate in Bethlehem.
 
This is her story. She shares it with new REALTORS® during New Member Orientation at the Greater Lehigh Valley REALTORS®.
 
“When you’re in a situation that is making you uncomfortable, you can feel it,” Seaton tells the new REALTORS®. “You have instincts. Listen to them. I had my keys. I had my car unlocked. I was ready.”
 
Seaton isn’t the only agent in the Lehigh Valley who has a story. A Bucks County man is currently serving 10 to 20 years in state prison for the attempted rape of an Upper Macungie Township real estate agent.
 
According to LehighValleyLive.com, Frank Yeager spent months accumulating a list of more than 200 names of REALTORS® and finding out the people's addresses, Facebook pages, businesses, churches and schools they attended.

On Nov. 25, 2012, Yeager attempted to act out his plan by trying to lure an agent to a room in a secluded model home in Upper Macungie Township to rape her, according to the report. Police found Yeager's diary that detailed his plan to rape a woman, possibly kill others and then commit suicide. Items in his truck included rope, chain, guns and duct tape.

And then there’s the case of Charlotte Fimiano. She was an agent with Weichert REALTORS® and was described to The Morning Call as an aggressive and successful real estate agent who went by herself to show a four-bedroom contemporary in a secluded part of Lower Saucon Township.

The next day, according to The Morning Call report, police found her body in the home she had hoped to sell. She had been strangled and shot in the head.
 
It was 1997. Her case remains unsolved.
 
While these two cases were higher profile and had the attention of the media, Seaton believes many of the area’s nearly 3,000 real estate professionals have a safety story to share. But, she notes, it’s only after an attack – much like any other tragic circumstance in the world – that everyone suddenly starts to take, in this case REALTOR® safety, seriously.
 
As an example, in an effort to write a separate safety-related story, the association attempted some crowdsourcing to see what safety apps and/or technology local agents were actively using. No one provided an answer.
 
Seaton admits that she has researched safety-related technology and apps and has presented the information at New Member Orientation. But, has she subscribed to any of the products she researched? No.
 
“I, like others, just get busy,” Seaton said. “But if we, as an association, can teach and train regarding the apps we feel are beneficial, I think it would make a world of difference.”
 
Michael Bernadyn, a REALTOR® with RE/MAX Real Estate in Allentown who also teaches the safety presentation during New Member Orientation, adds, “I don’t think we use what is available to us enough. Some of it is the ‘It won’t happen to me’ mindset and some of it is just not being given the proper information and knowledge of what is available.”

For a list of available safety-related apps and technology, CLICK HERE.

 Commenting on an agent’s decision to not pursue real estate after attending New Member Orientation and, more specifically, being spooked by the safety presentation, Seaton says, “Why should we wait before it’s too late to share the realities of the many predators of real estate agents? They are real and they exist. It is our job as an association to protect our people. If we sugarcoat it, are we really doing our job and are we really protecting our people? I rather share the truth and know we have done our job as an association.”
                          
Bernadyn adds, “We are never there to scare anyone away, but we all need to be informed of the dangers that are present in our ever-growing and fast-paced business. Knowledge is power and learning from past mistakes and issues can better prepare us for situations.”
 
Situations such as those described above, of course, are not just happening in the Lehigh Valley. The National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) represents 1.4 million members. According to NAR’s 2019 Member Safety Report, 33 percent of those members experienced a situation that made them fear for their personal safety or safety of their personal information. Common situations that caused fear were open houses, vacant homes/model homes, meeting clients alone, properties that were unsecured or inhabited, buyers who refused to meet in public places, and properties in remote areas.
 
Seaton has a plan for all of these scenarios.
 
“For starters, I never meet a potential client at a property,” Seaton said. “I was trained by old-school brokers who believed that everyone should meet at the office if they are serious about purchasing a home. I may meet a new client at a coffee shop, the office, or a public place. But never, ever at a property.”
 
Seaton also chooses to carry pepper spray and has practiced using it numerous times. According to NAR’s safety report, 44 percent of members choose to carry a self-defense weapon. The most commonly carried are pepper spray (18 percent), firearm (14 percent), pocket knife (7 percent), taser (5 percent), and a battery-operated noise maker (3 percent).
 
When it comes to carrying a weapon, Seaton advises being properly and thoroughly trained in how to use your weapon of choice.
 
Seaton truly practices what she preaches. What else does she do?
 
  • On someone always knowing her location: “When the client is not someone that I’m familiar with, I always let my significant other know which houses I am showing.”
  • On open houses: “I always share the location of open houses I perform. In an open house, I always know the exits and always stay close to the front door. I wear flats so I can run. I keep my keys and phone on me. My purse is always locked in my trunk. If I feel uncomfortable, I phone my significant other or another agent in my office. I've faked emergencies and closed open houses because I felt unsafe.”
  • On the buddy system: “I try to bring a lender or agent with me to all open houses.”
  • On never leading the way: “I always let the client lead when showing houses. I never allow myself to be backed into a corner.”
  • On cellphone coverage: “If I am traveling up north, I always check to make sure I have cell phone coverage.”
With all of this said, how can you – yes, you! – take a more proactive approach to your safety? In addition to Seaton’s tips, here are 30 additional safety tips for REALTORS®. Pass them on to a fellow REALTOR®. Hand them to your broker. Implement them at your office. At the end of the day, use your head and be safe.
 
Tip #1 - Keep it light

Show properties before dark. If you are going to be working after hours, advise your associate or first-line supervisor of your schedule. If you must show a property after dark, turn on all lights as you go through, and don't lower any shades or draw curtains or blinds.

Tip #2 - Checking-in

When you have a new client, ask him/her to stop by your office and complete a Prospect Identification Form (Find a copy online at www.nar.realtor/Safety). Also, photocopy their driver’s license and retain this information at your office. Be certain to properly discard this personal information when you no longer need it.

Tip #3 - Don’t be too public

Limit the amount of personal information you share. Consider advertising without using your photograph, home phone number and/or home address in the newspaper or on business cards. Don’t use your full name with middle name or initial. Use your office address – or list no address at all. Giving out too much of the wrong information can make you a target.

Tip #4 - Touch base

Always let someone know where you are going and when you will be back; leave the name and phone number of the client you are meeting and schedule a time for your office to call you to check in.

Tip #5 - Open house safety

Open house: it ain’t over till it’s over. Don’t assume that everyone has left the premises at the end of an open house. Check all of the rooms and the backyard prior to locking the doors. Be prepared to defend yourself, if necessary.

Tip #6 - Stranger danger

Tell your clients not to show their home by themselves. Alert them that not all agents, buyers and sellers are who they say they are. Predators come in all shapes and sizes. We tell our children not to talk to strangers. Tell your sellers not to talk to other agents or buyers, and to refer all inquiries to you.

Tip #7 - Keep track of colleagues

Have a check-out employee board at your office, listing your name, destination, customer name, date and expected return time.

Tip #8 - Wear your REALTOR® ID

Always wear visible company identification such as a badge. It is also best to drive a vehicle clearly marked with your company name. These will be invaluable for identification if you need to get assistance.

Tip #9 - Bring up the rear

When showing a home, always have your prospect walk in front of you. Don’t lead them, but rather, direct them from a position slightly behind them. You can gesture for them to go ahead of you and say, for example, “The master suite is in the back of the house.”

Tip #10 - Pick up some self-defense skills

The best way to find a good self-defense class is to learn what is available, and then make a decision. Many health clubs, martial arts studios and community colleges offer some type of class. You can also ask your peers, friends and family if they have taken a self-defense class that they would recommend.

Tip #11 - Got cell service, everywhere?

When you’re showing commercial property, thick walls and/or remote locations may interfere with mobile phone reception. Check in advance to be sure your phone is serviceable in the area in which you are showing the property.

Tip #12 - Choose flight over fight

While every real estate agent should take a basic self-defense course, the primary goal in any threatening situation is to escape from immediate danger and call for help.

Tip #13 - Agree on an office distress code

Create a voice distress code, a secret word or phrase that is not commonly used but can be worked into any conversation for cases where you feel that you are in danger. Use this if the person you are with can overhear the conversation, but you don’t want to alarm them. Example: “Hi, this is Jennifer. I’m with Mr. Henderson at the Elm Street listing. Could you email me the RED FILE?”

Tip #14 - Have your excuse ready

Part of being prepared to deal with a threatening situation is having “an out.” Prepare a scenario in advance so that you can leave—or you can encourage someone who makes you uncomfortable to leave. Examples: Your cell phone went off and you have to call your office, you left some important information in your car, or another agent with buyers is on his way.

Tip #15 -- Take a few seconds when you arrive at your destination to check out potential dangers:
  • Is there any questionable activity in the area?
  • Are you parked in a well-lit, visible location?
  • Can you be blocked in the driveway by another vehicle?
Tip #16 - You are not alone

If you encounter an individual while working late or alone in your office, indicate to that person that you are not alone. Say something like, “Let me check with my supervisor to see whether she’s able to see you now.”

Tip #17 - Lock up client keys

Be sure to use the lockbox property-key procedure that has been established to improve real estate agent safety. A reliable, secure lockbox system such as Supra (see page XYZ) ensures that keys don’t fall into the wrong hands.

Tip #18 - Nothing personal…

When talking to clients and prospects, be friendly but still keep your personal information private. This means avoiding mention of where you live, your after-work or vacation plans, and similar details.

Tip #19 - Long-term thinking

If you think it may be some time before a property sells (and you may, therefore, be showing it often), get acquainted with a few of the immediate neighbors. You will feel better knowing they know your vehicle, and they will feel better about the stranger (you) who frequently visits their neighborhood.

Tip #20 - Carry less

If you carry a purse, lock it in your car trunk before arriving at an appointment. Carry only non-valuable business items (except for your cell phone), and do not wear expensive jewelry or watches, or appear to be carrying large sums of money.

Tip #21 - Don’t get parked-in

When showing property or meeting someone, park your car in front of the property rather than in the driveway. You will avoid having your car blocked in, you’ll have an easier time escaping in your vehicle, and you will attract lots of attention running and screaming to your car at the curb area.

Tip #22 - Plan ahead with escape routes

Upon entering an open house property for the first time, check each room and determine at least two “escape” routes. Make sure all deadbolt locks are unlocked for easy access to the outside.

Tip #23 - Keep it professional

All of your marketing materials should be polished and professional. Don’t use alluring or provocative photography in advertising, on the Web or on your business cards. There are many documented cases of criminals actually circling photographs of their would-be victims in newspaper advertisements.

Tip #24 - Best practices for model home showings

When a person comes through the office to view a model home, have them complete a guest register that includes their full name, address, phone number, email, and vehicle information.

Tip #25 - Rely on good neighbors

Inform a neighbor that you will be hosting an open house and ask if he or she would keep an eye and ear open for anything out of the ordinary.

Tip #26 - Be prepared: pre-program!

To best prepare for an emergency, pre-program important numbers into your cell phone. These may include your office, your roadside assistance service or garage, and 9-1-1.

Tip #27 - Make your clients your “safety partners”

Inform clients who are selling that while you are taking safety precautions, and that you've checked and locked the home before leaving, they should immediately double-check all locks and scout for missing items immediately upon their return, in case you've missed any less-than-obvious means of entry.

Tip #28 - Don’t use the “v word”

When describing a listing, never say that a property is “vacant.” This may be an invitation to criminals.

Tip #29 - Be in charge

Whenever possible, be sure your cell phone has a full battery charge or is in the process of charging. This is critical, especially if you plan on leaving the house/venue.

Tip #30 - Have a lifeline

If you find yourself to be the last one in an open house and your car is not in the immediate vicinity of the venue, then make a phone call as you walk. Assailants will be less willing to attack if you are in mid conversation with another person. Give your best friend a call; they would love to hear about your day.