Privacy is an increasingly rare commodity these days. Just search for yourself on Intelius.com and take note of the information they are handing out about you for free. For a significant amount of pocket change, one can uncover the real scoop—a true testament to the fact that our personal information is worth something to legitimate businesses as well as criminals.
Today’s Realtors are faced with an ever-increasing number of privacy and safety concerns. There are multiple reasons for this. For Advertising purposes, Realtors often publish pictures and personal details and sometimes reveal location information unknowingly. Secondly, they rely heavily on technology (computers, smartphones, and tablets), that can be hacked if preventative measures are not in place. In addition, there are transactions such as short sales which require Realtors to collect and store the same information that data criminals seek. And herein lies the problem. For many of us words like “spoof” and “phish”—that relate to receiving bogus e-mails—are not part of our everyday lexicon, nor do we want them to be. But the time has come for everyone in the real estate industry to get educated in this digital economy. Knowledge and awareness is the name of the game or the consequences can be devastating.
A few unsuspecting real estate professionals in different parts of the country have realized the painful truth in this reality. They were victims of what is now referred to as The Wire Fraud Scam. While this scheme has played out in several different ways, it leads to the same downfall – a hacker successfully attacked. In a nutshell an agent receives wiring instructions from her closing attorney, unaware that Hacker Joe has placed himself in the middle of transmission and changed the routing account information in the email before it gets forwarded to the buyer. On the receiving end, the buyer complies with the instructions, and in doing so, makes a 20% deposit into Hacker Joe’s account.
Time to Tighten it Up
In light of this example and a growing number of other scams pervading the real estate industry I believe a review of some key privacy guidelines and rules are in order.
Consider taking the following actions to protect your privacy and secure your data.
1. The First Step – Your Online Self-Assessment
Your first step to online privacy and protection is to know what information you already have online. When was the last time you Googled yourself? What websites are sharing information about you? What private information are you storing on your computer?
These are only a few of the questions you need to answer to begin your self-assessment. If you find highly confidential information on any website (i.e. images of your signature or your social security number), you can request a removal from Google and other search engines. Simply do a search using the keyword phrase “Removing content from Google” for directions on how to do this.
2. Stop using Public Wi-Fi Networks
Hackers who creep onto public Wi-fi networks are hoping that you haven’t received the all-important memo years ago that began with “Never Use a Pubic Wi-fi Network.” If you fail to heed this warning, you need to realize that you are wide open to potential hackers who insert themselves into the line of communication in order to harvest your account passwords and read your e-mail. If you think a hacker had to go through extensive training to learn how to do this, think again—think Google and YouTube.com. There are video tutorials online that demonstrate how easy it is to do this.
There are other spots where a virtual agent might work or conduct business, such as a coffee shop, which is an ideal place for a hacker to set up a fake network. Even worst, if you stay on such a public Wi-fi long enough, a hacker can take complete control of your computer.
Protect yourself and don’t take the bait. Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Service providers like Private Internet Access (PIA) charge a nominal fee per month to encrypt your data so hackers cannot see it and Tunnel Bear is a VPN service provider with a free option up to 500MB.
3. Adhere to strict email security rules
Chances are good that you have received a phishing message in your InBox. This message appears urgent and comes from a known source such as FedEx or a bank in your area, when in fact it’s a scam designed to get your attention, to persuade you to click on the webpage and enter your personal details. Never click on the link – you could download a virus that affects everyone on your network. Beware of a suspicious email from someone you know. Unfortunately, your friend’s email contact database could have been hacked. If in doubt, pick up the phone and call them.
Lastly, if sensitive financial data is being sent over the Internet, use email encryption.
Most VPNs have this feature. If you are not using a VPN, Info-encrypt.com is a free, web-based service for easily securing your email that does not require installation on a PC. There are also videos on youtube.com on how to encrypt an email in Gmail or Outlook. For large real estate firms, there are enterprise options from HP Securemail and Hushmail.com.
4. Perform a Facebook Privacy Check up
The number one place that people voluntarily relinquish their right to privacy is a social network. Remember once on the Internet, always on the Internet, so do not post anything you would not share with the world—forever. Most of Facebook’s one billion users do not realize that everytime they update their Facebook timeline or profile, search engines are immediately notified and soon indexes this new information.
Action Item: If you do not want other search engines to link to your Facebook timeline, visit your Settings and select Privacy from the left column. Under the Who Can Look me Up? Section, look for the question Do you want other search engines to link to your timeline? Click Edit and change this setting to No.
5. Clear your browser history and cookies
Cookies are tiny pieces of code that websites attach to your computer to store information about you and your activities on their website. Cookies remember your preferences and can save you a good bit of typing. However, if you are trying to tighten up your online privacy it is a good practice to clear your cookies and delete your browser history on a regular basis.
6. Password protect your hardware
This is a simple but important requirement for your computer and mobile devices. For your mobile devices, fingerprint recognition is a great option. Those who oppose this option argue, “But I trust my family and co-workers.” To be clear, requiring authentication is necessary in case your laptop or mobile device is lost or stolen.
In addition, make sure you use strong passwords (not the four-digit simple passcode) for your devices and for online applications, use only passwords that contain uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols.
7. Consider two-factor authentication for business related applications
There’s another way to ensure your accounts are never hacked and involves the use of two-factor authentication. Accounts such as Google, Facebook, Evernote, and Dropbox give you this option, just to name a few. In this way you will need your smartphone as well as your account password to login.
8. Practice Mobile Safety
Did you know that a picture taken on your smartphone with location services turned On embeds GPS metadata into the photo? With proper software someone can pinpoint your exact location, including latitude and longitude coordinates. Keep it simple and disable locations services if you know you will be uploading a picture to the web. Other mobile safety precautions include:
Keep your operating system up-to- date. New updates addresses bug fixes and also keeps your device safe from the latest threat.
Check the image on your lockscreen. If your device is lost then found by a good Samaritan, will they be able to contact you? While there are apps for this, you can use simply write on an existing image in your photo album using the free app Skitch.
9. Mask Your IP Address
When you land on a website you leave a footprint in the form of IP information. It gives a website owner, at the very least, your location and service provider. For example a site owner looking at analytics will recognize me as a visitor from Atlanta. By using an IP masker, this will not be the case.
10. Get Notified if Your Name is Mentioned Online
If your name is ever mentioned on a public page online, you might want to know. You can do this by going to www.google.com/alerts. Make sure you have a Google Alert setup with your first and last name in quotations (Example – “Juanita McDowell”). The quotations tell the search engine to keep string of words together. If you are logged into your Gmail account, the email will be delivered to this address. If you prefer it be sent to another address, log out so it will prompt you for another email address.
No doubt there will always be personal information that you need to keep private. As a Realtor serving the public, maintaining online anonymity is a major challenge. With daily advances in technology it is hard to go anywhere online where our information is not being tracked or accessed. The solution is not to avoid the digital landscape, but to exercise caution and remember these important guidelines to ensure that you will not compromise your privacy and therefore your security.