Tighten It Up!

10 things you need to do immediately to protect your online privacy

 Juanita McDowell  |    October 09, 2015

Privacy is an increasingly rare commodity these days. Just search for yourself on Intelius.com and take note of the information the website is handing out about you for free. For a significant amount of pocket change, one can uncover the real scoop ‚ÄĒ a true testament to the fact that our personal information is worth something to legitimate businesses as well as criminals.

Today‚Äôs REALTORS¬ģ are faced with an ever-increasing number of privacy and safety concerns for multiple reasons. For advertising purposes, REALTORS¬ģ often publish pictures and personal details as well as sometimes reveal location information unknowingly. Secondly, they rely heavily on technology ‚ÄĒ such as computers, smartphones or tablets ‚ÄĒ that can be hacked if preventative measures are not in place. In addition, there are transactions such as short sales that require REALTORS¬ģ to collect and store the same information that data criminals seek.¬†

And herein lies the problem. For many of us, words like ‚Äúspoof‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúphish‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒ that relate to receiving bogus emails ‚ÄĒ 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. ‚ÄúKnowledge and awareness‚ÄĚ 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 a 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 percent deposit into Hacker Joe’s account. 

Time to tighten it up

In light of the wire fraud example and a growing number of other scams pervading the real estate industry, a review of some key privacy guidelines and rules is in order. Consider taking the following actions to protect your privacy and secure your data. 

Did you know? Most people give Facebook their real first and last name, city of birth and birthday. This information can be used to guess the first five digits of a social security number. Security experts recommend that you adjust the ‚Äúyear‚ÄĚ of birth.

1. The first step: 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 ‚ÄĒ such as images of your signature or your social security number ‚ÄĒ on any website, you can request a removal from Google and other search engines. Simply do a search using the phrase ‚Äúremoving content from Google‚ÄĚ for directions on how to do this.¬†

2. Stop using public Wi-Fi networks 

Hackers who creep into public Wi-Fi networks are hoping that you didn‚Äôt receive the all-important memo years ago that began with ‚Äúnever use a pubic Wi-Fi network.‚ÄĚ If you failed 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 email. If you think a hacker had to go through extensive training to learn how to do this, think again ‚ÄĒ think Google and YouTube. Video tutorials are readily available 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 worse ‚ÄĒ 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. Tunnel Bear also is a VPN service provider with a free option up to 500MB.

Action item: Go to the ‚Äúsettings‚ÄĚ app in your smartphone and make sure you are not automatically connecting to Wi-Fi networks.

Did you know? Antivirus programs protect your PC and VPNs secure your Internet communication, rendering your data useless to hackers.

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‚Äôs a scam designed to get your attention, to persuade you to click on a link in the email and enter your personal details. Never click on the link ‚ÄĒ you could download a virus that affects everyone on your network. Beware of a suspicious email from someone you know. Unfortunately, your friend‚Äôs 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 another option for you. This free, Web-based service easily secures your email, and it does not require installation on a PC. You can also find videos on YouTube that explain 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 checkup 

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 ‚ÄĒ forever. Most of Facebook‚Äôs one billion users do not realize that every time they update their Facebook timeline or profile, search engines are immediately notified and soon index this new information.¬†

Action item: If you do not want other search engines to link to your Facebook timeline, visit your settings and select ‚Äúprivacy‚ÄĚ from the left column. Under the ‚Äúwho can look me up?‚ÄĚ section, look for the question ‚Äúdo you want other search engines to link to your timeline?" Click ‚Äúedit‚ÄĚ and change this setting to ‚Äúno.‚ÄĚ

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 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 security option. Those who oppose this option argue, ‚ÄúBut I trust my family and co-workers.‚ÄĚ 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 ‚ÄĒ not the simple four-digit passcode ‚ÄĒ for your devices. And for online applications, use only passwords that contain a combination of 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 that 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 log in. 

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 location services if you know you will be uploading a digital picture to the Web. Other mobile safety precautions include:

  • Keep your operating system up to date: New updates address bug fixes and also keep your device safe from the latest virus.
  • Check the image on your phone‚Äôs lockscreen: If your device is lost but found by a good Samaritan, they will be able to contact you if you provide an alternative phone number or email. While there are apps for this, you can 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. Your IP address gives a website owner, at the very least, your location and service provider. 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 know by going to www.google.com/alerts. Make sure you have a Google alert set up with your first and last name in quotations, for example: ‚ÄúSue McMaster,‚ÄĚ The quotations tell the search engine to keep the string of words together. If you are logged in to your Gmail account, the email will be delivered to this address. If you prefer that it be sent to another email, log out so it will prompt you for this email address.


As a REALTOR¬ģ 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 safety.

Juanita McDowell is a real estate technology speaker and trainer. She travels the country teaching a course she designed entitled, ‚ÄúTighten it Up! Data Security, Privacy and Safety for REALTORS¬ģ.‚ÄĚ Learn more about Juanita at www.juanitamcdowell.com.

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