‘Everything Changed the Minute I Opened the Door’

by Melissa Dittmann Tracey

Debbie Morrisette, a real estate broker with the Morrisette Group in North Carolina, thought she had followed all the safety protocols prior to showing properties to a potential buyer. She first met with the buyer—a man in his 20s—in a conference room at her brokerage, screened his interest in properties and asked a lot of questions about his background. The only thing she now regrets is not trusting her instinct as she approached the home’s front door alone to show him the home.

“Everything changed the minute I opened the door,” Morrisette said as she recalled that day two years ago while speaking to attendees during a recent REALTOR® Safety Program webinar, “Prospect or Predator?” “I had this feeling that I just knew I was in trouble.”

The man was hesitant to move throughout the house once inside and not touring the home as freely as other buyers usually did. Morrisette tried to not get trapped in a room by making him lead. But after about 10 minutes into the tour, he grabbed her arm, admitted he had lied about his name and what he does, and proceeded to ask her uncomfortable, inappropriate questions.

“I knew this was fight or flight—it was one or the other,” Morrisette recalled. She was able to escape through a sliding glass door and run to a neighbor’s house to call the police. The man was arrested the next day. But that day still haunts her. Morrisette has been in the real estate business for 17 years. “I’ve always been such a trusting person and always love what I do and meeting new people,” she said. “I couldn’t fathom that anyone would want to harm another human being … and to come up with all these lies and take so much time to cook up a situation to intimidate someone else.”

Two years later, she still won’t do a showing by herself.

Nearly a quarter of REALTORS® say they’ve experienced a situation that made them fear for their personal safety or the safety of their personal information, according to the National Association of REALTORS®’ 2020 Member Safety Report, conducted by the National Association of REALTORS®. The top agent fears centered around conducting open houses and showings as well as meeting new clients at a secluded property.

“These are not opportunistic crimes—although many people assume that they are,” said Lee Goldstein, CEO at Real Safe Agent, who also spoke during the REALTOR® safety webinar. Most of the crimes committed against real estate professionals are predatory in nature, said Goldstein. The perpetrator tends to have a motive of wanting power or control over their victim, not burglary or theft. In these crimes, predators search for some perceived weakness or vulnerability in their victims and have the intent of committing crimes like assault, rape, and murder. These criminals are drawn to real estate professionals because they know they tend to work alone and they believe they have a better chance of isolating you, he said.

The Timeline of Predatory Crimes

Goldstein walked webinar attendees through the timeline of predatory crimes, which revealed a lengthy cycle of “victim shopping” and investing time in preparatory actions that lead to meeting the victim and the actual crime. At first, the predators will focus on photographs, websites, and social media channels to compile personal information about their potential victim. Once they’ve researched their victim, they’ll insert that victim’s actual life into what Goldstein called a “fantasy stage” as they visualize their crime.

“The more information and subservient you are, and the more you provide them on social media, the more likely they are to stay focused on you and not to move on to someone else,” Goldstein said. For example, David Legaz, a real estate broker and 2021 president of the New York State Association of REALTORS®, advised attendees to watch the photos they use and always ensure they’re professional. Avoid full body photos, use headshots at or above the shoulders, and avoid showing any flashy jewelry. Have a professional smile with eyes fully open and look directly into the camera–no head tilts, which can show vulnerability, Legaz said.

As part of the predatory crime timeline, predators will try to arrange for a meeting to get you isolated from others. This meeting is your first opportunity to show your strength, as they’ll be looking for weakness or vulnerability. Have an empowered greeting. Arrive at the property early and from the front porch step, for example, reach down to greet them—a nonverbal gesture to show empowerment. Set expectations (e.g., “We will be spending no more than 15 minutes at the showing as the sellers will be returning at 5:45 p.m.”), Legaz added.

Predators tend to pay careful attention to “stage setting” for their crimes, Goldstein said. They will try to isolate you in places away from people and exits, like in bathrooms, basements, or attics. Always walk behind prospect: “Direct them—don’t lead them,” Legaz said.

Watch for these common attack scenarios, Goldstein said:

  • Attempts to lure you into a room. For example, they may be in a home’s bathroom and tell you, “There’s a leak”—in an attempt to get you to enter the bathroom to look. Instead, stay outside the door and tell them you’ll notify the sellers.
  • Watch hallways. Hallways are another prime area for an ambush since you’re away from exits. Walk behind them and always maintain a safe distance, particularly as the person in front stops to approach bedroom doors.
  • Don’t get distracted. With a “look-up” type attack, they may try to get you to focus on something above as a distraction tactic.

The Best Ways to Prevent an Attack

To prevent an attack, Goldstein urged real estate professionals to use active listening during the initial meetings. Focus on the prospect and ask open-ended questions to help pinpoint any potential red flags. For example, look for inconsistencies in their story (for Morrisette, the man she met with said he earned $25 million last year from his company, yet his car didn’t match up to that wealth). Ask questions follow-up questions, and be skeptical of any stumbles or discrepancies in their story.

Trust your instinct. Many victims say they had “a feeling that something just wasn’t right,” when asked to recall the situation afterward, Legaz said. “Don’t discount that feeling, whether it’s a strange feeling after the initial call, while at the front door, or as you approach a home. … Your body is trying to warn you. If you have that feeling—exit. Stop the appointment. Tell them your family just called and there’s an emergency.”

Bring a coworker, family member, or friend with you to showings as much as possible, particularly in these situations, Legaz said:

  • When there is poor cellphone service at the property.
  • The property is vacant.
  • You have an uncomfortable feeling prior to the appointment.

Always keep personal safety at the forefront of your day-to-day activities, said Carl Carter Jr., a real estate professional and founder of the Beverly Carter Foundation, who also spoke during the webinar. Carter’s mother Beverly Carter, a real estate pro in Little Rock, Ark., was kidnapped while showing a property to a man and woman who were posing as home buyers in September 2014. After a nationwide search, she was found dead days later. “In reliving the horror, I tell my mother’s story because I hope you will listen,” Carter said. “We’re all working so hard that it can be easy to lose sight that there is bad that walks among us.”

Reprinted from REALTOR® Magazine by permission of the National Association of REALTORS®. Copyright April 30, 2021. All rights reserved.