Over the last couple of weeks, female agents all over North America have reported a problem with a similar trajectory: A person with a male-sounding voice has been calling female agents on their listed phone number, asking to see a property and then escalating to threats, insults of a sexual nature and texts with doctored versions of the agent’s photo.
A similar scenario has so far been reported in Georgia, British Columbia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Several reports prompted the Greater Lehigh Valley Realtors Association to send out a warning to more than 2,500 of its members last week, in which it warned female agents of a “suspicious individual requesting to be shown vacant homes.”
“Different brokerages have identified the person as ‘Jesse,’” reads the warning. “This individual made several unsettling comments, including requesting to meet at an agent’s personal home, has stated he wants to buy a house – any house will do – as long as the specific agent he is speaking to shows him the house, etc.”
Tracey Hawkins, a real estate safety expert and founder of Safety and Security Source, said that what initially appears as isolated incidents signal a problem that will affect almost every agent at one point or another — harassing calls are often seen as part of the territory that comes with agents’ need to be highly visible online.
“I often hear agents say ‘you know, they’re only looking for pretty girls or blonde girls or whatever’ and then everyone who doesn’t fit that description relaxes,” Hawkins said. “What I’m here to say is that there are no specific types and everyone needs to pay attention and implement safe practices because that might be what they’re looking for today but going forward they may be looking for something different.”
While it may be easy to dismiss a few harassing texts as “not a big deal,” doing so can often be dangerous. (In one case, an unidentified texter sent a 64-year-old agent a message saying that he had plans to “kill/assassinate” her.) Hawkins offers us six tips for minimizing the number of harassing phone calls as well as dealing with them when they do occur.
1. Beware of unfamiliar phone calls
Every phone call is a potential client to an agent and, as a result, many are simply not able to dismiss unfamiliar numbers or anonymous calls in the way that people who are not in the industry do. At a minimum, agents should be cautious about calls from numbers that are disguised, outside one’s area code or otherwise unfamiliar but Hawkins recommends flat-out banning anonymous calls with a phone setting.
“An extra step that agents can take is set up a default, either with their cell phone provider or a phone setting, that will not accept unknown calls,” Hawkins said. “This allows the caller ID to identify who they are and if it’s likely be spam or a risky caller, it will identify that before the agent answers.”
2. Consider an anonymous phone number
An anonymous number through Google or another cloud system can be an option for agents who dealt with inappropriate messages in the past. Such a number would redirect to one’s main phone and could still be placed in one’s signature but would not be tied to one’s name if someone types it into Google — a common way many criminals find agents they want to target.
“I’ve had agents say ‘Wait I need to be found, I don’t want an anonymous number’ and I have to remind them that this simply means that your information isn’t tied to it,” Hawkins said. “The only difference is that the public doesn’t have access to your personal cell phone number but that phone number can still come into your regular phone.”
3. Block phone numbers
The first step for dealing with threatening, unpleasant or otherwise suspicious messages is to block the number. While many of the people targeting agents use software to continually generate new numbers, a simple block will weed out a certain portion of unwanted calls.
“Blocking the number is the first step, just in case it’s just a regular person who hasn’t invested in spoofing software and who isn’t that dedicated to it,” Hawkins said.
4. Recognize trends
As anyone who has dealt with bot-generated calls knows, scammers and harassers often find ways to work around blocks and generate thousands of new numbers. An app called Robokiller can recognize similar types of calls or voice patterns and block them before they get to your phone. I
n general, though, agents should note the different types of unwanted calls they receive in order to be able to report them as outlined below.
“When you get those automatic spam and fraud calls, the answer bot will answer with a recording,” Hawkins said. “It drives whoever’s calling you crazy.”
5. Report calls to law enforcement officials
If blockers aren’t working and you’re still receiving dozens of unwanted calls or texts, do not hesitate to contact local authorities. Hawkins said that, oftentimes, agents think that one or two strange calls isn’t worth the trouble of reporting — as a result, the behavior is allowed to continue until a tragic or otherwise news-grabbing incident leads to a renewed discussion around agent safety.
“That’s not the agent’s call, they should not be the ones to make that decision,” Hawkins said. “They need to report it to the law enforcement officials and then allow them to decide if it rises to the level of a reportable crime. Even if doesn’t, enough agents reporting the same type of crime will allow [authorities] to spot a trend.”
6. Do not blame yourself
The number of bot, spam and harassing calls has been on the rise for a number of years of now. While the instinct is often to think that you made your phone number too visible online or picked the wrong kind of bio picture, the truth is that criminals are specifically looking to target agents.
Instead of shame, creepy phone calls can be an occasion to crack down on agent safety both at a personal and industry level.
“Do not feel that this is a crime that we can’t do anything about because we can,” Hawkins said. “These are criminals who are targeting real estate agents but it can also happen amongst real estate agents. The door is open to define what is harassment and get that conversation started.”