Protect virtual home tours against cyber crime

Protect virtual home tours against cyber crime

MAIN IMAGE: Dr Andrew Golding, chief executive Pam Golding Property Group; Herschel Jawitz, CEO Jawitz Properties; Denoon Sampson, director Denoon Sampson Ndlovu; Tiaan Pretorius, Seeff property consultant in Centurion.

Cyber crime is a reality – what are the security risks with virtual property marketing that estate agents should be aware off?

Due to the restrictions imposed since lockdown, the traditional show house has of necessity had to take a backseat. Buyers are now doing far more research online before deciding to view a property. “Understandably, they aim to gain as clear and detailed a picture of their selected property/ties before they view on site. This has led to virtual tours becoming commonplace,” says Dr Andrew Golding, chief executive of Pam Golding Property Group.

Considering the health and security risks associated with the traditional show house, there are many in the traditional real estate sector that say the time has come to let the open house go in favour of online visual marketing.

Read more: Time to let the show house go?

However, consumers are not the only ones spending more time online – cyber criminals are too. As one agent put it “you are able to case the entire property with total anonymity from the comfort of your own chair”. How real are the security risks with online marketing of listed properties?

Security risks of the virtual realm

Cyber crime is a worldwide problem and a reality in South Africa. In 2018 the losses suffered by victims of cyber crime amounted to R2.6 million according to the South African Banking Risk Information Centre. The property sector is seen as vulnerable in this area. PayProp CEO Jan Davel last year said the potential for cyber crime is rife in residential sales and rental transactions.

Read more: Real estate vulnerable to cybercrime

Property leaders and legal experts agree that the same risks could apply when online property marketing isn’t done in a responsible and careful manner. According to Herschel Jawitz, CEO Jawitz Properties the issue of security when it comes to virtual show days does pose a challenge especially in South Africa. “Virtual tours in some respects create a similar security risk to show days as they give the client a much better view of the home than still pictures. These factors will be difficult to control in terms of vetting clients and who has access to the viewings,” he says.

Tiaan Pretorius, property consultant with Seeff Centurion, says although they haven’t experienced any security issues with virtual show houses, he agrees that it is important that estate agents be aware. “It is a modern world with new technology which, while making marketing more effective, is also vulnerable to criminals who are using technology to commit crimes.”

“The ‘For Sale’ board outside the house and a detailed online expose of the inside of the house, does pose an opportunity for criminals,” says Denoon Sampson, director Denoon Sampson Ndlovu. “It is surprising that anybody can access a virtual tour with complete anonymity,” he adds.

What about protection through POPIA and FICA?

The Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) and the Financial Information Centre Act (FICA) are among new legislation recently adopted to better protect consumers – among others also from cyber criminals.

On 1 July the bulk of the provisions associated with POPIA became operational. This means that an estate agent needs consent from the seller to process his personal information for record keeping. Sampson suggests that this is also a good opportunity to negotiate consent on the private information that the seller is comfortable with sharing on a virtual tour of his property.

The FICA provides protections with regard to vetting potential browsers and purchasers. “The Act provides that you must verify everybody with whom you have a relationship; and it starts when you first field enquiries from prospective purchasers. So, this is a great opportunity to filter out bogus buyers, criminals and chancers,” explains Sampson.

In line with new FICA requirements most estate agents already verify the identity of a confirmed purchaser by calling for proof of his identity and address. However, this is only done after he already made his offer to purchase accepted by the seller.

There is no verification and record of a casual browser. Sampson suggests that estate agencies consider making it a requirement that browsers register and complete a short questionnaire before being allowed to view an online video or virtual tour of a property. If they do not complete, then the system will not allow them to browse.

He also suggests including on the questionnaire a question about the source of funds and when it will be available. “Experience has shown that those who are committed purchasers will be only too pleased to demonstrate that they are serious purchasers and they will be willing to disclose their particulars and the source of their funds,” he says.

The FICA Legislation (Section 21 A(c) of Act 38 of 2001) stipulates that the Service Provider “must obtain information from the prospective client describing the source of his funds”. There are heavy penalties if the service provider does not comply with the Act.

What can estate agents do?

Many casual browsers may not be keen on sharing their own contact information with an eager estate agent prior to deciding which properties they are seriously interested in. However, it is also clear that estate agents have a responsibility to take care to protect their clients from opportunistic viewers with criminal intent.

Be scarce with details. “Take care not to expose too many details with regards to any potential security measures your seller has or make it too easy for any potential criminal to identify the property,” says Pretorius. For instance provide the address only to serious buyers who have been properly vetted.

Keep videos short. Dr Golding says most of their videos tend to be short lifestyle clips that are less than a minute in length. The videos are life-style oriented, lack concise detail and focus instead on capturing the ‘flow of the home’ and a ‘feel of the layout’.

Blur or hide valuables. Adrian Goslett, regional owner and CEO of RE/MAX of Southern Africa, says they advise sellers to stow away any lose valuables, including jewellery, laptops and other easy-to-steal items, that might tempt criminals. With Matterport ‘walk-through’ videos sellers can indicate whether there are objects that they would prefer to blur in their homes eg. paintings.

Read here to find out more about the difference between a video tour and Matterport tour.

Suggest a sole mandate. Pretorius says that is one of the easiest ways to make sure there is more control over the information that is shared with strangers.

“At the end of the day, an estate agent carries the responsibility of being the gatekeeper of prospective buyers to the seller’s property,” ends Pretorius.

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