DENISE ROBILLARD – ‘Paramount importance’

The recent arrest of a Florida man who police believe posed as a homebuyer to attack and rob real estate agents has many in the industry breathing easier.

The crimes, which started in February in parts of Florida and Georgia, were similar in nature. In each case, police believe the same man pretended to be a buyer interested in a luxury home and after luring real estate agents to a vacant home he bound them with duct tape or some type of restraints. He then forced them into a closet or bathroom and stole money, jewelry, credit cards and other valuables before fleeing. The most recent attack occurred in mid-July.

The arrest and crimes have highlighted the safety risks that real estate professionals across the country encounter every day. In an effort to get real estate agents to pay closer attention to safety, this year, for the first time ever, the National Association of Realtors has designated Sept. 14-20 as Realtor Safety Week.

In Connecticut, the state Realtor association is in the process of completing a safety guidebook that it will make available to its members.

“The security professionals agree that real estate professionals are definitely in a high-risk position. The problem is that they are often in isolated situations where they are vulnerable to attack and because of that there are dozens of men and women who are assaulted, raped and sometimes murdered,” said Robert Siciliano, a national safety instructor who is president of Safety Minute Seminars in Boston.

Siciliano has offered safety seminars for real estate agents throughout the country. Nationally, there were 57 violent crimes against real estate agents – six of them fatal – in 2001, said Siciliano, citing the most recent statistics from the National Safety Council.

Connecticut Realtors have had a few scary incidents of their own.

Denise Robillard, president of the Connecticut Association of Realtors, recalls an incident several years ago when a Realtor was assaulted in her downtown office. Robillard said that all the local real estate boards were notified about the incident so that Realtors across the state could be more cautious.

“I think [safety is] of paramount importance,” said Robillard, who is also president of Continental Realty Assoc. in Griswold. “We’re out with the public all day long.”

Minimizing Risk

At Continental Realty Assoc., agents meet with new prospective clients in the office. If they don’t feel comfortable with the prospective homebuyer, agents are encouraged to take another agent with them on appointments to view homes.

“The initial meeting in the office is one of the best ways to avert a lot problems because meeting someone at a house or vacant property is just not acceptable anymore,” she said.

Robillard also knows several agents who carry pepper spray, but realizes that even that doesn’t guarantee safety. “You’re out there in the public and if someone has the mindset that they’re going to hurt you, and you have pepper spay and they have a gun, you’ve got an issue,” she said

Siciliano advises that agents do exactly what Robillard’s agents are doing – avoid meeting prospective clients at vacant homes and instead meet with them in the office. He even recommends that they obtain proper identification, such as a driver’s license, to verify that the person is who they claim to be.

In the Florida attacks, the robber posing as a homebuyer used different phony names in each case, according to a news account that appeared The Florida-Times Union in July.

“[Obtaining proper identification] would significantly reduce their chances of attack,” said Siciliano.

Real estate agents unknowingly engage in behavior that can put them at risk. One mistake that can make real estate agents a target is placing a personal photo on signs, newspaper advertisements and business cards – particularly the “glamour-style” photos that are taken to make a person look more attractive.

“It invites trouble,” Siciliano said of the photos. “To a predator, meeting with a real estate agent is a date, and that’s the reality of it. They don’t think like you and I do. When the real estate agent is showing them the property they think the real estate agent is flirting with them.”

Open houses can also present opportunities for criminals to strike. Siciliano recommends having two agents present at open houses or even having a police detail. For agents who are alone and start to feel uncomfortable, Siciliano suggests that the agent can alert the client that a colleague, particularly a larger male colleague, is on his way to meet them.

Allyson Bernard, broker-owner of Real Estate Professionals of Connecticut in Danbury, recognizes the dangers of public open houses. At her company, agents do not have public houses by themselves.

And Bernard has a strict policy about meeting with new customers. “Never, ever meet a cold call at a property. You always meet them at the office first. That’s real important for new agents and novices, because they get a call and think, ‘ooh, a possible sale,'” she said.

As Siciliano advises, agents in Bernard’s office are told to take a copy of a prospective client’s driver’s license and leave it in the office along with an itinerary before heading out an appointment to show a home. If a customer refuses to comply with the identification request, then the agents don’t take them to show them homes.

“[Safety] needs to be a part of your everyday business. It’s simply a fact of life. I try to remind people to incorporate it” into their daily activities, said Bernard.

Robillard tells the six agents at Continental Realty to trust their gut instinct – it’s often the best tool to minimize risk.

“If you feel uncomfortable – it’s that funny feeling in the pit of your stomach when you’re with a client – don’t ignore that,” she said.