Chapter 32 - Licensee Safety
At the completion of this chapter, students will be able to do the following:
1) Identify at least one licensee safety issue.
32.1 General Safety Concerns
“The National Association of Realtors® Members Safety Report asked members how safe they feel on the job, while 96 percent of Realtors® have never been the victim of a crime, nearly 40 percent have found themselves in situations where they have feared for their safety or the safety of their personal information. The most common fearful situations were at open houses, showing vacant and model homes, working with properties that were unlocked or unsecured, and showing properties in remote areas.”
This chapter is designed to help you avoid potential threats to your safety and well-being, as well as to help you feel more comfortable and confident when carrying out your typical duties as a licensed Realtor®. Although the NAR Report states that 96% of agents have never encountered a direct assault, the same report did reveal that 40% of agents have indeed experienced the threat of such. Let us explore the various considerations that will leave you more informed so that you can be better prepared in your business.
While it is certainly true that assaults and crimes can and do happen to both genders, statistically speaking, the majority of agent assaults have been on women and by men. This is also true in overall criminal statistics when it comes to crimes against strangers. Clearly this doesn’t mean that the opposite couldn’t or doesn’t occur, but rather, that female licenses should take even further precautions in assuring their safety.
General Safety Concerns
Know your surroundings
One sound measure licensees should take is to always know their surroundings. While geographical regions of the state may differ dramatically, danger hazards are still present. Being aware of your surroundings mean that you constantly take a visual survey of wherever you may be. Pay attention to people and cars. Research in safety training for consumers shows that people who are more alert tend to be least likely to be victimized.
Office point of entry/exit
Be sure you know the points of entry and exits in your office or building. Exits should be clearly marked, and it is a good idea to have occasional “test runs” for various kinds of threats. For example, in a fire or bomb threat situation, staff should be well aware of the nearest exits so they can evacuate the building and quickly as possible. Likewise, if you’re meeting a new client at your office and find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation, you should be clear on the fastest escape route, whether it be the entrance or exit.
Security cameras, alarms, and lighting
Real estate offices should be equipped with security cameras so that should any incident take place, management will have possible footage that may help apprehend the assailant. Offices should also have an alarm system in place. Alarms will alert an agent that may be working late, should someone attempt to break in the office. The alarm systems should automatically notify law enforcement of the intrusion as well. In such an occurrence, the agent who is alone may be best protected by hiding under a desk, in a closet, or some other space to stay safe until help arrives. It is wise to have your cell phone with you, so that you may text or call for help. Offices should be well lit. This also includes office parking lots as muggings, assaults, and purse-snatchings—among more violent crimes—often take place in parking lots. Bright lights serve to dissuade criminals more than a dark or dimly lit parking lot or structure would.
Accounting of staff and visitors
Front office staff should have a sign-in sheet for anyone who enters the office that is not employed there, at least for offices that tend to be quieter and for later hours. Further, when an agent meets a client for the first time, having the client sign in is a smart idea should anything happen to the licensee then that sign-in might serve as a clue to finding the licensee. One idea I’ve seen implemented is to have a sign-in sheet at the reception area, with a small sign that says the receptionist has stepped away, but to please sign in before going any further.
Office access/ keys and security codes
It’s very important that office keys are strictly monitored. First of all, the keys must be the kind that are not replicable so that should some come up missing, there will be no concern that someone has made copies. Also, management must maintain a strict system of assigning keys to licensees. If an agent leaves the brokerage, that agent must be held accountable for returning the key immediately. Different offices may have different policies and procedures, but generally speaking, one would need to leave the key prior or coincidental to moving their license to another broker’s office. Security codes may be required to enter or exit the office or building to deactivate or active the alarm system. It’s essential that agents remember to do this when departing from the building.
32.2 Safety at the Office
Safety at the Office
Precautions when working alone in a commercial space must always be adhered to. This is even more true in “strip mall” type offices and brokerages where large window with lights on allow anyone walking or driving by, to see that there is one person that seems to be alone. Pay attention to your instincts. If you have a bad feeling or something doesn’t seem right, at least go to the trouble to insure your safety. Next, when working in an office alone, be sure you are not in sight of outside people passing by. Blinds or curtains should be closed. That is not to say that you should hide, however it is prudent to ensure that if you are alone in the office to make sure that people walking by cannot easily see inside the office.
Entering and exiting office while alone
When you arrive at your office, regardless of what time of the day it is, be aware of your surroundings. Clearly this may be more important at night, but nevertheless, it’s a good idea to pay attention. It’s not unusual for perpetrators to stalk or case a person or an establishment with ill intent for a future crime. A good number of crimes could be thwarted if people merely paid more attention. If we always have our attention on our cell phones for example, we may be completely oblivious to the stranger that’s been following us for the last two blocks. Or the stranger sitting in a car in front of our office who we think nothing about. Perhaps he’s waiting for someone, but your simple noticing of him could be important.
Also, it is now common to listen to music, podcasts, or audio books on the go. Doing that will hamper a person’s ability to stay vigilant and pay attention to their surroundings. If this is one of your habits, and it is dark outside, then please make sure to pause the files you are listening to and pay attention to anybody who is in close proximity to you and the entrance or exit of a building.
When leaving your office, especially at night, be sure to look out of the windows before you exit your locked office. Check to see if there are any cars parked near yours that seem out of place. Look to see if there are any people hanging around that look suspicious. If anything seems off, then call someone who can drive to the office and make sure you get into your car safely.
Licensees who work late cultivate a buddy-system with other agents who tend to work late. That way, they both agree that if one is at the office alone and feeling frightened, the other one will drive over to see that the first one gets to her car okay. If you are arriving at the office in the daytime, and for some reason will be staying until after dark, be sure to park under a light. Most parking lot crimes, as stated earlier, happen in darker areas where the assailant feels less likelihood of being seen.
Meeting unknown individuals
While we’ll explore safety for property showing next, what about when a new client comes to your office? If it’s during normal business hours, chances are good you will not be the only person there. However, it’s always a good idea to find out as much about anyone you may be meeting at your office beforehand. One example that spans to showing anyone property is to pre-qualify them. In a recent survey, from a group of 200 agents from all around the USA, their number one safeguard in working with new clients, the response was overwhelmingly to make sure the person is qualified. In our industry we think of pre-qualifying as making sure a buyer is motivated in order to qualify for a loan, and while that is true, in this context we’re also insuring a certain level of safety.
In other words, if an individual has bad intentions of committing an assault of some kind, for example, he is not likely to go to the trouble to speak to a lender and perhaps provide tax returns and pay stubs. That’s not to say it isn’t possible any more than it is to say that an individual who refuses to speak with a lender is planning criminal activities. But admittedly, it IS one way to assure a buyer is truly a buyer. Should a buyer agree to meet you at your office without being prequalified, simply have your lender be at the office with you. Even if the buyer is still not interested, at least the person would see you are not alone.
32.3 Safety on the Road and at Home
Safety on the Road and at Home
Meeting clients at vacant home(s)
The real estate community was shocked at the news of a 27-year old Iowa woman who was tied up and fatally shot twice when meeting someone to show a model home that she would be holding open. Although it was a very rare occurrence, it shook the nation as a horrendous crime that made no sense. The murderer has yet to be found. Another murder of an Arkansas agent in which there was an arrest, occurred at a vacant house the agent was meeting the killer at.
Not surprisingly, showing homes seems to be the area most agents exercise precaution, next only to open houses which we will cover next. I’ve interviewed agents who admit to carrying pepper spray in California and guns in Texas, however, most experts agree that these don’t always prevent attacks and can often make them worse. That said, it’s important to practice extreme safety when showing a vacant property. Recall I mentioned earlier that things may be different in downtown New York than they are in Upstate New York, but make no mistake, both pose their own kinds of threats where vacant buildings or rural properties are concerned.
First of all, one way to lessen the likelihood of assaults is to have the individual meet you at your office. Although we covered the ways to strengthen safety in the office visit situation, the truth is that someone with the intention to harm or attack an agent is less likely to meet the licensee at the office. This is true because there are more opportunities for witnesses to see the perpetrator or his/her car.
However, often time people would like to meet at the property just to view it. As already noted, it’s still the best idea to request the person at least speak to your lender. Some agents will tell callers wishing to see vacant property that the sellers have insisted that each person who views the property first be qualified with a lender. Those two things, meeting at the office first and having them talk to a lender before you meet are the two top choices for exercising precaution. But clearly, these are not always possible or feasible, and we don’t necessarily want to walk away from an opportunity to meet and work with a new client.
Let’s discuss a few tips that can help make showing vacant property safer. First of all, let someone know where you are. Have a safety plan. Whether it’s someone from your office or a spouse, be sure and let the person know the address you will be at and instruct them to call you at a certain time, say 10 minutes after you’ve sent them a text that you’ve arrived. If they call you and you don’t answer, they should call for help. But basically, make sure someone knows the address and knows to check on you. Also, bring someone with you. Two people are a bit harder of a target should the buyer have criminal intent.
A couple of other tactics can help keep you safe. Always let the buyers enter the house and each room ahead of you. Never turn your back on a stranger in a vacant house. Be very cautious when going into basements. This extends to wine cellars, walk-in closets, and other small spaces where escape is limited.
Taking someone along for the showing of a vacant home should perhaps become a permeant part of your practice.
Safety on the road
According to Inman News, a well-respected real estate media source, the majority of agent deaths in this country is a result of automobile accidents and falls. When viewing properties for the first time, be careful of stairs, lose steps, and other issues that could lead to a serious fall.
Additionally, if you are a female agent, please have in mind that high heels can be a hazard, so carry a pair of safer shoes when it seems more feasible.
Clearly part of a licensee’s job requires ample driving time, and that puts agents on the road more often than some other professions, increasing the likelihood of accidents. In order to stay as safe as possible on the road, preparation is the best mode of prevention. Have your itinerary well planned out, using your GPS if possible so that you can keep your eyes on the road. If you need to take or make a phone call, be sure you are using a hands-free device. However, as much as we like to think we are quite capable of multi-tasking, highway patrol statistics say otherwise. Most calls you’ll be making or taking when driving can be postponed until traffic or road conditions are safer. Always use smart judgement when driving and do not text when you’re behind the wheel.
Open houses, similar to vacant houses, can pose potential dangers. Even though a home isn’t necessarily vacant, as in, people still live there, we often ask sellers to leave the property during open houses. Open houses therefore are empty of anyone but the agent.
As mentioned earlier, it is good practice to have someone with you when showing a property. While you may not have or want your own crew of “assistants”, the idea is that most criminals will be dissuaded when other people are around. Even having your lender, for example, to assist with the open house is a good idea.
One tip for holding an open house is to make sure that the back door is unlocked. This is not so visitors will enter, but so you would have a quick way out should you find yourself in a precarious situation. Of course, make sure people know where you are and always have your cell phone with you and fully charged. If you’re at a long open house, playing on your cell phone, the batteries can run down, so always remember to have a charger with you, so you’re never left without emergency access on your phone.
An additional precaution is when you are picking up your signs. Often times, at the end of the day, all an agent wants to do is grab the open house signs and throw them in the car. However, this is a prime time not only for being at risk of attack, but also for endangering yourself in traffic. Be aware of your surroundings, who’s watching you or following you, and be extremely cognizant of traffic when placing or picking up your open house signs.
While most attention is given, and rightly so, to showing houses and holding open houses, a word should be said about listings. Just because someone owns a home and invites you inside it, doesn’t mean that person is immune from criminal behavior. While it may be much less likely than when showing a vacant house, it’s better safe than sorry. Be sure a loved one or someone at your office knows the exact address of every listing appointment you go on. And again, if your instincts kick in, look to bring another agent with you.
Home office safety concerns
As the online world expands, more and more licensees are working from home. Technology allows us to perform many of our duties in the Cloud. Even agents who work at commercial offices usually have an in-home office as an adjunct place to work. The office suggestions earlier in the chapter can be applied here as well. An additional consideration is to avoid sharing your home-office address, if at all possible. Some agents who work strictly from home use a PO Box for mailing purposes. Meeting a buyer in a coffee shop is a perfectly acceptable option to allowing a stranger in your home. If you do work from home, be sure to avoid “checking in” on social media sites where your home location could be detected by people who shouldn’t see where you live.
32.4 Licensee Safety Issues
Licensee Safety Issues
Protection of online personal and electronic information
Never in our history has identity theft and bank account hacking been so prevalent. It’s inevitable that even in the most cautious of practices, you will have to enter personal information online. Let’s face facts; most of us do the majority of our banking online. Even so, extra precautionary steps can take us far in protecting our identities and accounts.
For starters, never enter your social security number online. Even if it seems like sending an email to someone trustworthy may be safe, it’s important to remember that viruses and hackers have ways of infiltrating your email before it even reaches the intended party. Your social security number (and of course your banking information) should never be shared via internet, email, or even fax transmission. The risk is just too big.
Another area we tend to fall prey is with passwords. How many of your passwords are the same? Many people will use the same password or a variation of it for all their accounts…including bank accounts. Take the time to create unique and strong passwords to protect your sacred sites and accounts. Ask someone who has found that their credit cards have been compromised and they now owe $20,000 for a trip they never took.
Seriously, after you are done listening to this section please go ahead and make sure you change your passwords. A good way to ensure you remember your passwords is to create a sentence or question in your mind and use the first letters as the password code.
Here is an example:
Let’s say you use the following question to remember your password: “Do Many Dogs Like To Play Outside In The Rain?” and your password has all capital letter.
Using the first letters from each word your password will be: DMDLTPOITR?
As you can see this becomes a far more secure password and having all capital letters and using a symbol at the end will be much harder to hack.
Now that you get the idea you can go ahead and update the passwords to your most valued emails and bank accounts.
Another concern is the safety of the website you are on. Cyber security merely means a website is better protected from “cyber attacks.” If you’ve had someone send you an email that you shouldn’t have opened but you didn’t realize it until it was too late, you know what I mean. For whatever reason, brilliant minds have put their best effort into stealing from innocent cyber shoppers and surfers, or otherwise destroying their computer systems.
The best advice—aside from being extremely careful as to what information you provide online (even in an email or social media message)—is to look for the cyber security assurance for the websites you visit. Be extra careful about opening emails from unknown parties. The tricky thing now is that the email attachment may actually be from someone you know, but that someone you know, didn’t send it. In other words, the modern hacker has figured out how to hack into a person’s email account, for instance, and then send emails to the person’s email list that contain viruses. Sometimes these viruses ruin your computer, worse yet is when they pull up all your account info and private passwords.
The best advice is to be very careful about what information you provide and what attachments you open. One tip is to open email attachments on your phone.
Protection of client information
Above all else, you fiduciary duty to you principal certainly extends to protecting their personal information in the online environment. Today, online, e-signing is all but normal. There was a time when no one would have even considered signing legal documents to transfer or purchase property on a computer. Add to that, a click on a link or a signature space! Yet that’s our current industry. That said, you must take extra measures to insure your clients’ personal information is kept that way. Never take short cuts. Never ask them to sign something they haven’t read and understood on their phone, or put personal information like social security numbers in non-protected forms.
Identity theft concerns for licensee/client
As noted earlier, identity theft is no easy thing. The last thing you want is the burden of cleaning up an identity theft situation. It is well-known that it can take years for bad credit reports to be cleared from these issues. In fact, sometimes credit issues are never repaired, leaving a completely innocent person subject to the hardship of reduced credit ratings. But what about when it happens to your buyers?
Since we know that identity theft and hacking can destroy one’s credit, what happens when you have an innocent buyer who was a victim to such? Firstly, connect the buyer to a trusted lender and perhaps a credit repair company. The client should have a record of whatever false transaction occurred, a police report, and whatever other evidence he or she can provide. Ultimately, this is not a task for you as an agent, but rather for that of the lender. Federal lenders are experienced in working around or through these cases within the parameters of their abilities. Should you have a buyer who claims identify theft, let your lender sift through the situation as each one will be different and not within the scope of your responsibilities.
32.5 Liability Issues with Accidents, Incidents & Injuries
Liability Issues with Accidents, Incidents & Injuries
Each State holds licensees to a high standard of law for the responsibility that comes along with their role to the public, including their principals and other professionals in the industry. This is why brokers and agents must carry Liability Insurance. Such insurance fills the gap between the more general Errors and Omissions Insurance (they are the same thing, but often called by both names) and covers things such as state and municipal law that governs real estate agents, Association codes, and real estate licensing regulations and policies.
Clearly a broker has a larger role of responsibility to both the public and his agents. The greatest exposure to potential damages tends to center around professional conduct versus slips and falls, for example, which may be more the case in restaurant liabilities.
It’s important to note that should an agent be sued for a professional conduct, including failure to disclose or discrimination, among other things, the broker will likely be include in the law suit, even if he has never met the principal. This is part of the expanded liability risks brokers have to face.
For agents, professional liability insurance is written on a by claim basis. Some things that are typically not included are fraudulent conduct, causing bodily harm, and robbery. Agents are held liable should they intentionally cause harm or fail to disclose. Other oversights or non-intentional conduct will often be cover by liability insurance. Of course, an agent should always conduct themselves in a professional and ethical matter so that fewer issues arise.
Agents who use their car for work, especially to show property in, should have increased automobile insurance. Be sure and tell your insurance carrier that you are a real estate agent, using your car for work, and if you have buyers you will be driving around to looks at listings.
Buyers and sellers may be found liable in certain situations. For instance, if the seller failed to disclose a known defect or material fact that may have caused the buyer to not purchase the home, the seller could be liable for damages. Even though the agent and broker may be included in the lawsuit, in this kind of situation, the liability insurance would likely kick in and the only person who may be required to pay damages would be the seller. Sellers and buyers have a contractual obligation to be honest and forthright in their communications, or could be held liable, depending on the circumstances.
If an agent is hurt at the premises of a client’s home, for example, the client’s homeowner’s insurance may be an applicable solution. If the harm was intentional—assault, for instance—the client may be legally and criminally liable.
Third Party Acts (Liability limited in listing contracts)
According to the listing agreement between the broker and seller, the broker faces limited liability in the event of 3rd party wrong-doing. Regardless if the wrong-doing was intentional, negligent, or accidental. An example may be a vendor. For example, if a painter fell banged his ladder into a large picture window and caused it to break, it would be the painter’s insurance that would be liable for damages (or the homeowner’s property insurance, perhaps), not the broker or agent.
32.6 Risk Reduction
Establishing and Implementing an Office Policy
There are several crime prevention organizations that specialize specifically in agent safety. At least two organizations are affiliated with the National Association of Realtors®. Further, risk reduction is a timely topic both at NAR and with individual organizations around the country. The broker/manager must take proactive steps to insure a strict office policy is in place, updated annually or more often, and find a way to instruct agents and staff about the policy.
The greatest measure to lessen liability for buyers and sellers is through education. Making sure that your principal not only signs the contracts, but understands what they mean. It’s often helpful to create a list or road map of the purchase or sales process so that you can walk them through it, alerting them to responsibilities that they may currently be unaware of. While disclosure tends to be the biggest concern in most situations, there are times when a buyer could also be liable. For example, if a buyer decides to take possession of the property before settlement, and then something were to cause the transaction to fail, the buyer would be held liable for any damages that occurred while he was there without permission.
Anytime an incident occurs, depending on what it is and who is involved, some sort of follow-up plan should be in place and executed. Incidents might include physical harm, professional conduct concerns, or conflicted communications. Follow-up should include dates, times, and updates pertinent to the incident. Any parities with a vested interest to the incident should be kept appraise of any results or developments that may concern them.
As noted earlier, brokers and agents have a great deal of responsibility. Clearly, the broker carries the heavier burden because he or she is ultimately held responsible for the actions of his or her agents. Obviously if an agent commits gross negligence or assault, the broker may seem to be left without liability, but that isn’t necessarily always the case. Basically, an agent acts on the behalf of the broker. So, let’s say for example and agent strikes a client without justification. That assault may end in the agent’s arrest. While the broker would likely not hold any criminal liability, that is not to say that the client could not sue the agent and broker in a civil law suit. In that example, the broker’s liability insurance would most likely protect the broker, but not the agent.
With licensed agents, the liabilities to be aware of revolve around disclosures, ethics, and discrimination. There of course, may be other areas, such as criminal conduct or fraud, but for the most part, those are the three areas where most licensees face liability issues. While most non-intentional acts will be covered by the agent’s liability insurance, criminal acts or gross misconduct usually won’t. Even if an agent is considered liable for a certain act that was not deemed illegal, the agent may still stand to lose his license or have it suspended. Continuing education classes, even beyond those that are required, are one good way that agents can keep themselves up to date on new laws, policies, and codes. It’s also important to keep up to date with contract changes and local ordinances that can and do affect your transactions.
Agent safety begins with awareness and prevention. Brokers should take a proactive role in setting office policies that are required learning for the agents. And agents must be diligent in exercising not only common sense, but going beyond common sense and embracing safety and prevention as an ongoing part of their daily practices.
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