Do you and your employees work remotely?

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Check out these network tips for remote employees

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Our office has been involved in workflow studies for the offices of our attorney agents, and one point that comes up often is that allowing employees to work at home increases employee satisfaction and retention. We’ve witnessed many paralegals permanently move to remote locations and successfully retain their jobs. Telecommuting seems to work successfully in many instances.

In our own office, all our employees have the capability to work remotely. We learned when our office building suffered a fire in 2012 that the ability to access our network from remote locations allowed us to continue our business without interruption. The day after the fire, we disbursed the funds for a large commercial transaction for an agent from my kitchen at home!

And since South Carolina routinely finds itself within the maze of the spaghetti models during hurricane season, the ability to work remotely is important if not necessary to maintain contact while taking care of school children and hunkering down at home.

American Land Title Association (ALTA) published an article on September 5 attaching The Center for Internet Security, Inc. (CIS) Telework and Small Office Network Security Guide.

This 25-page paper provides useful, up-to-date guidance on keeping your networks safe when employees are allowed remote access. The guide provides recommendations for buying equipment, setting up networks, setting up devices, securing home routers and protecting against digital threats.

The ALTA article refers to a Forbes study that found 38 percent of teleworkers lack the technological support they need to do their jobs. Securing devices and networks that allow telecommuting is critical. The guide includes a network security checklist and tells users how to map security configurations to provide cybersecurity protection at remote locations.

Thanks to ALTA for pointing us to this valuable resource, and thanks to CIS for publishing it!

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A glimpse into the future of residential real estate sales

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Here’s what may happen when iBuyer companies enter our market place

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I read an interesting article from Forbes recently by John Wake entitled “The Surprising Way Real Estate Agents are Adapting to ‘iBuyers’ Buying Houses Directly From Sellers.” I invite you to read the article in its entirety here.

The article focuses on residential real estate sales in the Phoenix market which the author calls “ground zero for the iBuyer explosion.” What does he mean by that? Apparently, the largest iBuyer companies, Opendoor, OfferPad and Zillow Offers, either started their operations in Phoenix or concentrate their efforts there. He estimated five to six percent of houses that change hands in that market are sold to iBuyers.

The article focuses, as its title suggests, on how real estate agents are adapting to this disruption in their market. But I find the article instructive to South Carolinians on the topic of how these internet sales are orchestrated and how they might affect sellers in our market when this disruption migrates east to us.

The author says that a homeowner who seeks to sell a house via an internet company must first complete an online form. An offer is typically made within two or three days. If the homeowner accepts the offer, inspectors will be sent to the house and will come back with a list of repairs and estimated costs for the repairs that the buyer requests before the closing.

As in our current process, the seller can agree to make the repairs, to reduce the price of the house to cover the cost of the repairs, or to terminate the contract.

The author suggests that real estate agents commonly complain that iBuyers tend to offer less and to ask for more repairs than traditional buyers. In other words, the seller makes more money in traditional sales involving local real estate agents.

The flip side of that coin is, of course, that closing with one of the iBuyer companies is more convenient than the process in our marketplace. A seller doesn’t have to get the house ready to sell, stage it, keep it clean for showings, or leave home for showings and open houses. The closing date may be more flexible, and there probably will not be contingencies for appraisals and financing.

How are real estate agents in Phoenix adapting? According to Mr. Wake’s article, real estate agents are assisting sellers by obtaining multiple iBuyer offers, analyzing and explaining the offers, discussing the options of accepting one of the iBuyer offers or beginning to market the home in the traditional manner, and coordinating everything with the iBuyer or traditional buyer, including repairs.

In short, real estate agents are attempting to become iBuyer experts in addition to traditional home sale experts.

Real estate lawyers, we need to be ready for this disruption when it hits us. We will want to be able to explain the changes in the market to our clients as well as to educate our real estate agents on how to stay in the game. Let’s keep our eyes and ears open! I’ll help!

FCC Publishes Scam Glossary

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FCC Seal

The Federal Communications Commission recently published a Scam Glossary, which you can access here. The glossary provides a helpful description robocalls, spoofing scams and related consumer fraud.

The FCC tracks these nefarious items through consumer complaints, news reports and notices from other governmental agencies, consumer groups and industry sources.

The glossary includes links to more detailed information posted in the FCC’s Consumer Help Center and trusted external sources.

Here are a few of my least favorite schemes from the glossary:

“Can You Hear Me” Scam: Scammers open by asking a yes-or-no question, such as: “Can you hear me?” or “Is this X?” Their goal is to record you saying “yes” in response. They then may use that recording to authorize charges over the phone.

Flood Insurance Scam: After floods, scammers may target hard hit areas with fake calls about flood insurance to steal private information or money. They may spoof a legitimate flood insurance company to appear more convincing.

Google Listing Scams: Some scammers claim that they can add or remove you or your business from Google searches or similar services. These callers, unaffiliated with Google, seek payment for services they can’t deliver.

Jury Duty Scams: Callers pose as local law enforcement, claiming they have a warrant for your arrest because you missed jury duty. They may instruct you to pay a fine by wiring money or using gift cards.

Porting: A scammer gets your name and phone number, then gathers other identifying information that can be used for identity theft. Pretending to be you, they then contact your mobile provider to report your phone as stolen or lost, and then ask for the number to be “ported” to another provider and device. They can use your number to gain access to your financial accounts and other services with two-factor authentication enabled.

Smishing: Short for “SMS phishing”, smishing often involves text messages claiming to be from your bank or another company. The message displays a phone number to call or a link to click, giving scammers the chance to trick you out of money or personal information.

Wangiri/One Ring Scam: When your phone rings only once, late at night, you may be tempted to call back. But the call may be from a foreign country with an area code the looks deceptively like it’s in the U.S. If you dial back, international calling fees may wind up on your bill. Such cons are known by the Japanese term “Wangiri”.

Check out this useful list, share it with your office and your family members. And be careful out there!

Amazon-Realogy partnership is making news in the housing market

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New home buying program not yet available in South Carolina

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According to several news sources, Amazon announced in late July that it will partner with residential real estate services company Realogy Holdings Corp. to launch a new home-buying program called TurnKey.

A TurnKey portal will be available through Amazon’s gigantic retail platform, Amazon.com. Potential home buyers who use that portal will be matched with real estate agents from one of Realogy’s brands like Coldwell Banker, Century 21 and Sotheby’s. Realogy is purportedly the largest residential real estate brokerage company in the country.

Potential buyers will go to Amazon.com/TurnKey and answer four questions about who they are and where they live. They will next get a phone call from a Realogy representative who will attempt to determine what sort of home they are seeking and how serious they are about buying. Information about the best prospects will be sent to Realogy real estate agents.

Home buyers who close with Realogy agents will receive up to $5,000 in products and services. Coupons for $450 – $1,500 in Amazon Home Services like unpacking, cleaning and furniture assembly will be available in addition to between $500 and $3,500 in smart-home products. Purchase of a $700,000 house will be required to receive the top credit.

The two giant companies are interested in finding out whether home buyers will look for new homes in the same place where they already shop for everything else. The credits for products and services will give Amazon a new way to market things it already sells, such as handyman services and smart-home gadgets like Alexa-powered speakers, doorbells and security cameras. The new lead-generating program will seek to help Realogy recruit and retain agents and increase market share.

The new program is starting in 15 markets, including Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco. We’ll have to wait to see how quickly it moves to South Carolina.

HUD accuses Facebook of housing discrimination

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facebook-dislike-thumb.jpgThe U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced last week that it has filed a civil complaint against Facebook, Inc. alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act as a result of Facebook’s ad-targeting system. Twitter, Inc. and Google have been notified that their similar practices are under scrutiny.

Facebook’s ad-targeting system allows advertisers the ability to direct messages to target audiences with precision.  HUD charges this system has allowed real estate companies to unlawfully discriminate on the basis of race, nationality, religion, color familial status, sex and disability.

The complaint alleges Facebook is guilty of “encouraging, enabling and causing” unlawful discrimination when it allows advertisers to exclude users by certain characteristics, for example, whether they are interested in Hispanic culture and food, whether they are parents and whether they are non-citizens or non-Christians. Some ads are only shown to women. Other ads may exclude neighborhoods or geographic areas like ZIP codes. Secretary of HUD Ben Carson said using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in that person’s face.

HUD alleges Facebook mines users’ extensive personal data and uses characteristics protected by law to determine who can view housing ads.

This is not the first time Facebook has been in trouble for ad-targeting. An earlier investigation by ProPublica found the advertising practices acted to exclude African American, Latinos and Asian Americans. HUD had filed an earlier complaint last August alleging ethnic groups were excluded from viewing some ads. Facebook took action by removing 5,000 ad target options.

The ACLU was not happy with that result and filed a lawsuit. That lawsuit was settled recently with Facebook announcing substantial changes to its platform including withholding a wide array of demographic information often used as indicators of race. Facebook also agreed to create a tool that would allow users to search for housing ads whether or not the ads could be viewed in individual news feeds.

HUD was apparently dissatisfied with the settlement as not going far enough to remedy housing discrimination and responded with the current complaint.

Have you heard about “Zillow Offers”?

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It’s not available in South Carolina yet, but it may be a matter of time

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In early 2017, Zillow tipped its toe into the process of selling homes by launching a product it called “Instant Offers”. The product was initially tested in Las Vegas and Orlando and was described as a method for homeowners to sell their homes for a discounted price without the traditional complications of repairing, listing, staging and allowing for open houses.

The process started with a homeowner providing basic information via Internet about the home (square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and remodeling information) and uploading photos. The Zillow product then connected the homeowner with investors who buy homes in the area, and, typically, an all-cash offer was made by one or more of the investors. The homeowner paid no fee for the service and was not obligated to accept any offers. Zillow touted the product as a method to alleviate the seller’s stress and to allow the seller to close in a shorter timeframe.

Other companies, OpenDoor and OfferPad were already operating in this space at the time of the Zillow launch. The launch was called another example of technology disrupting the process of closing real estate transactions.

Real estate agents, of course, met the news with alarm. They said sellers would be suckered into making mistakes that might cost them the education of their kids, vacations or just the ability to sleep better at night because they have more money in their bank accounts. An online petition was initiated, asking the National Association of Realtors to threaten Zillow with being removed from access to listings. The NAR responded that it could not sponsor or encourage such a boycott.

Zillow has always stated publicly that it is not in the business of getting rid of real estate agents. Its executives called Zillow a media company, not a real estate company, and said it sold ads, not real estate. Even the Instant Offers program encouraged sellers to use a realtor even while avoiding the traditional listing and sales process. The question then became the amount of commission the real estate agent would earn for reduced services. When real estate agents initially complained about Instant Offers, Zillow responded that 70% of its revenue came from working with real estate agents.

In early 2018, however, Zillow announced that it would begin buying homes directly from sellers and then turning around and selling them. With this announcement, Zillow began selling ads and houses. Two test markets were announced, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Zillow said that when it buys homes, it will make the necessary repairs and updates and list the homes as quickly as possible. Zillow said local real estate agents would represent Zillow in the transactions. Zillow also announced in a press release that the vast majority of sellers who requested an Instant Offer ended up selling their homes with agents.

The program was later launched in several other markets, Phoenix, Atlanta, Denver and Charlotte. And last week, Zillow announced that it would be expanding to Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Nashville, Orlando and Portland in 2019. So far, nothing is in the works for South Carolina as far as we know, but I did get a kick out of one article that referred to one of the markets as “Charlotte, South Carolina”.

Stay tuned for more news on this topic. Real estate lawyers will need to figure out how to remain in the game whether properties are sold through the Internet or not!

Take a look: deep within the Internet is a secretive place…

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.. where criminals buy and sell your private information

Nobody in my household is old enough to receive publications from AARP. (And if you believe that, I should either say “thank you” or try to sell you that beautiful 8-lane bridge crossing the Cooper River in Charleston.) But, for some reason, AARP’s September Bulletin arrived in my mailbox today, and it contained an excellent article entitled “Inside the Dark Web” that provides the best information on that topic than I’ve read to date. You can read the article here.

The article, written by Doug Shadel with Neil Wertheimer, said much of the available information on the dark web comes from Brett Johnson, an “imposing and charismatic” former criminal once dubbed the “Original Internet Godfather.” Johnson created “Shadowcrew”, one of the first online forums where criminals could buy guns, credit cards, Social Security numbers, and drugs. He landed on the Secret Service’s most-wanted list and was in and out of prison for a decade. The other source of information is a character who is now in prison and who asked to be called “Blue London” in this article. Today, according to this article, Brett and Blue are willing to share detail about the dark web, Brett, as a law enforcement consultant, and Blue, as an inmate who wants to reduce his prison sentence.

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The article describes the entire content of the web. The “surface web”, which makes up 5-10% of the Internet, consists of sites that show up when you use normal search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing. These sites encompass news, entertainment, products, services and consumer information. The creators of these sites, like Wikipedia, Amazon and WebMD, want lots of people to see them.

The “deep web”, which makes up 90-95% of the Internet, consists of pages requiring a password and can’t be accessed by normal search engines. These sites include online banking, subscription websites, government records, emails and most social media content. Examples include PayPal, Netflix, LinkedIn, Instagram and Dropbox.

The “dark web”, which makes up just 01% of the Internet, consists of sites that provide anonymity to users and go largely unregulated. Many are legal. For example, sites service as outlets for human rights activists can be found on the dark web. But the dark web is also used by criminals to make illicit purchases and sales with total anonymity. Cryptocurrency like Bitcoin is used to make the transactions untraceable.

The article described AlphaBay, a site that, before it was taken down in 2017 by the FBI, had over 200,000 users and took in between $600,000 and $800,000 daily, mostly drug related. But that site also dealt in stolen personal IDs, stolen credit card numbers and hacking tools.

Brett and Blue showed the authors of the article many other inhabitants of the dark web that moved in to take the place of AlphaBay. These sites sell the items marketed on AlphaBay plus logins and passwords, credit reports, and “fullz” which translates to a “complete package of everything needed to commit identity theft: Social Security number, date of birth, mother’s maiden name, address, phone numbers, driver’s license number and more.”  Blue said a fullz can sell for $20-$130, depending on the victim’s age and credit score.

Data can also be sold piecemeal. Brett asked the author his wife’s name and quickly found her Social Security number available for purchase at $2.99. The author also paid a small fee and received a 92-page report containing all his current and previous addresses, phone numbers, social media sites and email addresses. The report also contained descriptions of his family members and neighbors and details about properties he has owned.

Much of the data, according to this article, goes up for sale shortly after it is stolen. The huge data breaches we hear about routinely apparently flood the market and deflate prices. Brett and Blue told the author that they could study social media sites to harvest data for criminal purposes. Many sites use “knowledge-based authentication” (KBA) questions, which should be information that only the user knows. But if the user adds this type of information to social media sites, the scammers can successfully mine the information.

The article provides some advice to stop the cybercriminals. First, we should all simply assume that our information is already “out there” on the Internet, and take action to protect ourselves. Cybersecurity experts and former criminals agree on three steps to help us all stay safe:  freeze credit, closely monitor all accounts and use a password manager. The author said he fully subscribes to this advice and has taken all three steps. I’m at two out of three. What about you?

(You can thank me later for directing you to this outstanding article that you are much too young to read.)