Facebook Helping to Stop Felons

A social media site is going all out to ensure that agents are aware of industry-related criminal activity in areas across the country

I’d received an email about this thief who liked to go ‘shopping’ with his accomplice at show houses.”

Real Estate Agents Face Real Danger

The fact that agents allow strangers into their cars and invite groups of unknown people to visit houses on show are just two reasons why the job could be classified as risky. The murder of a Ballito estate agent in 2007 highlighted just how vulnerable agents can be as they go about their day-to-day activities. In this tragic case, agent Lynne Hume had been asked to visit a luxurious unit in an upmarket estate to meet with the tenant, Muziwendoda Kunene, to discuss problems with the rental property. The next day, her body was found in her burnt out vehicle in the Free State. While this case may be extreme, there is little doubt that given the crime rate in this country, agents have a whole lot more to worry about than earning their commission, and although many have changed the way in which they work, criminals always seem to be one step ahead.

Unfortunately, estate agents are more vulnerable than ever and are being forced to take more and more precautions in order to prevent themselves – and in some cases, their clients – from becoming yet another sorry crime statistic.

Curbing Crime

One of the latest initiatives aimed at helping real estate agents fight crime involves a Facebook page called ‘Estate Agents on eblockwatch’. The site is restricted to agents and is a platform on which they can share their stories of criminal activity in the areas in which they operate. We are not talking about general crime here, we are talking about exposing those who specifically target estate agents and the properties they are selling. The page was launched in April this year and within two weeks, 147 agents had already joined. To date, the site has been responsible for bringing at least one criminal to book.

Crime Case Study: Stopping Steve

Nicknamed ‘Steve the Shopper’, this devious man would surf the Internet property pages looking for homes to target. He generally selected upmarket homes and would make an appointment to view with an agent. Once there, he would often use a friend to distract the agent while he wandered from room to room, taking photographs and opening cupboard doors and dressing table drawers, helping himself to anything of value. He was so brazen that there were times when he would go back to a room, telling the agent he wanted another photograph before stealing yet more items. “When we were initially alerted to ’Steve’ and his activities, he was targeting Fourways Gardens, Broadacres, Mondeor, Little Falls, Bassonia, Kyalami Estates, Centurion and other upmarket areas,” says Stella van Niekerk, office manager for the ChernoDavis Properties group, who manages the site.

“I’d received an email about this thief who liked to go ‘shopping’ with his accomplice at show houses. Although he always used the same email address, his cell number often changed. I brought this to the attention of André Snyman, the founder of eblockwatch, and estate agents on eblockwatch groups, and we started gathering as much information as we could about this man.” It appeared that ‘Steve’ had been quite a busy chap, and posts from agents and agencies around the Gauteng area highlighting his modus operandi started to appear on the site right from the start. The information was handed over to the authorities, who then published an article accompanied by a picture in a well-known newspaper. ‘Steve’ was arrested at the Silver Lakes Estate by two alert security guards who recognised his picture, but unfortunately he was released due to lack of evidence. Three days later he was rearrested at Midstream Estates and now faces a number of charges.

While it may be impossible to know how long ‘Steve’ had been operating, one thing is abundantly clear – he was caught very soon after his antics were exposed on social media. This clearly indicates just how powerful a site like Facebook can be, and given the number of agents operating in the field, how effective banding together to fight crime is. There are many ‘Steves’ around and agents who are forewarned to be on the lookout for a particular individual or who are aware of new ways in which criminals are operating will inevitability stay one step ahead and will be better equipped to deal with the problem.

For Agents Eyes Only

The fact that the page remains accessible only to agents is vital as it stops conmen and other criminals from perhaps using the information posted there for nefarious purposes. The benefits of joining the page speak for themselves and, obviously, the more agents who join and report crimes, the better. Crime has no borders and the beauty of social media is that it allows agents from all over the country to report any illegal goings-on. While there are some who believe that it’s only important to report crimes on pages linked to their own area, van Niekerk points out that she had been informed of cases in Ballito in KwaZulu-Natal and Hartbeespoort Dam in North West, which bore a striking resemblance to ‘Steve the Shopper’s’ modus operandi.

Van Niekerk notes that it is imperative for agents to band together in order to share information. “It is very important for us to protect our reputations and to inform each other of potential criminal behaviour affecting our industry. We need to take a stand against crime. I was held up at gunpoint at a show day in November 2005 and I had no support or assistance in finding those responsible. I have decided to take a stand and request my colleagues in the industry to join me in making a difference. The bigger the team of agents involved, the more information about incidents and culprits will be shared. André will immediately be informed and we will gather as much information as possible and hand it over to the authorities. We have dedicated officials in the group who will react when an agent needs assistance. We have also established an estate agent’s WhatsApp group to alert agents who are on show or taking buyers to private viewings what they need to be on the lookout for,” says van Niekerk.

Messages are sent with vehicle details including registration plate number (if available), how many occupants, modus operandi and sometimes if the perpetrator/s have been caught on CCTV at entrances to estates or in homes, those pictures will be issued to the agents to assist in getting more information. We encourage all estate agents to become part of this very effective group.”

The Facebook site makes for some interesting reading. Erring tenants, ‘heavy breathers’ on the phone and a particularly nasty incident involving a person who gained entry to a home by pretending to be an agent and who then assaulted and robbed the homeowner have been reported. Another case reported involves a man who makes appointments to view empty rental properties then ties the rental agent up before making off with handbags, cell phones and jewellery.

Protecting People and their Reputations

While it goes without saying that not every criminal will be caught, the fact that this information is being shared and agents alerted to these activities will allow the agent to protect both himself and his clients. Let’s be honest here, it’s not only about protecting agents – homeowners are not going to look kindly on any agent who allows a thief into their homes during a show day. Agents’ reputations are at stake here and it is in the best interests of all concerned for agents to be aware of any dodgy goings-on in a particular area. “The impression the seller is left with when their valuables go missing is very negative,” says van Niekerk. “In my opinion, the agent and the seller are both to blame. The agent needs to advise the seller to lock valuables away and the seller needs to do their part by being sensible as well.”

Although agents have been warning clients to lock valuables away for years, sellers do slip up. We are all human and although a seller may have every intention of not leaving valuables lying around, it is still their home and old habits die hard. Van Niekerk adds that agents need to remember that a criminal is only a successful criminal if he can get away with the crime. Use your imagination to make this difficult for them, not necessarily by using physical force, but by gathering as much information and evidence as possible. Sellers are understandably becoming more reluctant to put their homes on show. However, it stands to reason that a seller will feel more comfortable dealing with an agent who is watching their back by having as many safeguards in place as possible.

“As agents, we act on behalf of sellers and buyers. In order to gain the confidence of sellers, it may be a good idea for the agent to advise the seller that he is part of the eblockwatch community support programme. Point out that buyers will be monitored – if possible, on registration – by having their pictures taken for security purposes. This last point could prove contentious, but as much as we don’t want to intimidate buyers, the safety of sellers, their property and their valuables are our first priority. Of course, criminals are going to become more inventive and, as such, agents have to become more proactive about security. Communication and teamwork is the name of the game and all agents are urged to keep abreast of the latest trending criminal activities and report any criminal behaviour that comes to their attention.

Tips for Deterring Criminals

  • Encourage sellers not to leave anything tempting lying around.

•    When possible, let the security guard at the gate know that you are sitting at a show day.

•    Walk through the property before the start of the show day and lock away valuables that may have been left out in the open. Don’t  forget to put them back once your show day has finished.

•    If you have information about criminals in the area who should not be allowed into the property, share as many details as               possible, including the make of car and registration number.

•    Ensure that buyers’ information is well documented on arrival, including names, cell phone numbers and email addresses.

•    Ask a security guard or friend to take pictures of potential buyers’ cars and licence discs on arrival if there is no CCTV camera at     the main gate of the complex.

•    Agents should consider connecting their phones to the eblockwatch CommUnity panic button.

•    Don’t leave the security gates open if you are sitting at a show day.

•    Keep pepper spray handy at all times and make sure that it is easily accessible.

•    When showing a vacant property or a stand, sit outside the property in your car and let viewers go through and then come back and ask you questions. By doing this, you will be able to get away if the situation turns sour.

“In my opinion, the agent and the seller are both to blame. The agent needs to advise the Seller to lock valuables away and the Seller needs to do their part by being sensible as well.”

Contact Details

Lea Jacobs

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