This article was originally published in Real Estate Agent Magazine Twin Cities, written by Charity Malmberg, Founder and President of Trademark Title
The age of the Internet has brought us the ease of communication, incredible networking and marketing possibilities, and endless access to new research and data. However, we also need to face an unfortunate reality that has come along with all of these positives: we are constantly at risk of fraud and identity theft. Never before has the real estate, mortgage and title industry been under such scrutiny for protecting consumer’s non-public personal information.
The Federal Trade Commission’s 2014 annual report found that American consumers reported losing over $1.6 billion to fraud in the previous year! It was at the top of the list of consumer complaints. As business professionals and owners, we need to take these facts seriously. We need to take responsibility for fighting to protect our customer’s private information as well as our own.
Believing this to be an important topic, we invested some time exploring a few ways that fraud or identity theft can happen and how you can protect yourself and your customers.
Fraud and identity theft can happen in a number of ways. Perhaps a customer sends you a check for earnest money and then asks that you wire the money back ASAP because they want to cancel the transaction. Later you find out the check was never good in the first place. Perhaps an identity and information thief impersonates a company you trust and asks for private information. Perhaps a thief finds a customer’s private information in a dumpster behind your office building.
Here is an actual situation that took place in the last few months. A REALTOR we were working with had her email hacked. The hacker sent an email to her clients instructing them to wire funds to a new account and to disregard the old wiring instructions. Luckily, my staff got involved and made the proper phone calls to stop the hacker from receiving over $18,000 from the clients. As you can imagine if the phone call wouldn’t have taken place, the hacker would have run off with the money and the clients would not have been able to close, at least on time. There are countless ways that fraud and identity theft can happen, and though some of it may be beyond your control, there are also many ways you can guard against it.
Here are five tips to keep yourself and your customers protected:
Some of these tips are straight from Lynn Brown’s “Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act: What Every Company Needs to Know.” The rest are some added security precautions.
- Have an information security plan in place. This plan should include a digital protection and ensure that all sensitive information is properly filed and secure or destroyed.
- Provide employee training on how to handle sensitive documents and customer information.
- Install and utilize computer protection tools.
- Adopt a shred-all policy. When documents are no longer needed, shred them just in case.
- When sharing your own or a customer’s banking or personal information, always be sure you know the individual or business well, title companies included. Never share information if it is illegal or you are unsure of why the requester is asking for it.
Even if you do everything right, sometimes you or your customer can still be the victim of fraud or identity theft. If you notice strange withdrawals on your credit cards, bills for things you never purchased or other warning signs, immediately place a fraud alert. You can learn how to do this at ftc.gov.