Whether you’re willing to admit it or not, working as a real estate professional comes with danger, with exposure at any given time to people you’ve never met before that suddenly reach out to you because they are interested in doing business. Most of those strangers are legitimate consumers seeking to buy, sell or rent property. But, unfortunately, many have less honorable intentions.
HAR reminds you that scam artists, foot fetishists and other threatening individuals continue to harass members with phone calls and texts at all hours of the day and night, and display suspicious behavior at open houses. It doesn’t matter if it’s a weekday, weekend or holiday. These menacing characters are out there all year long and their sole objective is to target unsuspecting REALTORS®. Making safety your top priority is the key to steering clear of a potentially deadly situation.
Always Call 911 First
This looming criminal threat has persisted for many years – before the pandemic, throughout it and today. What has made these cases tricky for authorities to investigate is that the caller often uses a blocked phone number, although software is available to reveal those numbers. Despite member safety alerts that HAR posts on HAR Connect, on social media, in the Members Only Portal as well as in Houston REALTOR® magazine, HAR receives at least one report a week from members about unwelcomed contact. We often find that members notify HAR before calling the police, and that can have deadly consequences. Anytime you feel threatened, physically or otherwise, immediately call 911! Once you are out of harm’s way and the police have noted your complaint, HAR welcomes hearing from you so that we can inform other members. You may even provide us with contact information for the authorities so we can reach out to them if needed. HAR has created a special email address for reporting such cases: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We also have other safety resources that we share at the end of this article.
The “Foot Fetish Creep” and Other Nasty Characters
The “foot fetish creep,” as HAR has labeled him over the years, is the perpetrator that has been around the longest – making life miserable for female members and the Association since around 2009, as best as anyone can recall. And while HAR cannot confirm this, we believe there may be copycats out there.
From conversations we have had with targeted members, we know just how disturbing calls from this character (or characters) can be. The calls begin very innocently, inquiring about legitimate property listings and expressing an interest in possibly making an offer. Then the caller will complain about cell reception, ask the REALTOR® to move closer to the window, ask whether the REALTOR® is walking on carpet, tile, etc. It then quickly morphs into a conversation about her footwear with the caller asking the REALTOR® to remove her shoes and describe her feet. History has shown that, in most cases, the moment the targeted member puts a male on the phone – whether it’s a coworker, friend, husband or boyfriend – the “foot fetish creep” is done with the conversation. However, in early 2020, HAR learned of two cases in which an apparent foot fetishist became agitated by the male on the phone and threatened physical harm. The police were immediately called and no one was hurt, but a suspect was never apprehended.
From time to time, HAR has also received complaints from members that are texted photos of sexual body parts and receive sexually graphic phone calls. Our advice has always been to immediately block those numbers, if displayed, and call the police.
Scammers have always been a problem, but we are hearing about a wide variety of scams lately. The newest bad actors are clever and extremely manipulative. HAR has heard of cases in which scammers claim to be law enforcement officials – calling from the Harris County or Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office – and stating that there is an outstanding warrant for the member and that they will need to wire or otherwise deposit funds in order to clear the case and not be arrested. Based on member feedback to our last posting about this threat, these are among the most realistic-sounding calls, with some saying they have heard police scanners in the background, as if they are indeed calling from a police station or other location that provides a law enforcement service. These guys tend to do their homework and will often know just enough about you and the names of colleagues to be convincing.
Other scammers will text claiming to be brokers or brokerage managers/owners, purportedly trapped in meetings or stuck on Zoom sessions or conference calls and ask that you run out and buy a bunch of gift cards. These are bogus. Ultimately, they want to get the gift card serial numbers from you so they can seize the cash equivalency and go shopping.
Scammers are also hijacking property listings from HAR.com, including the photos, and listing them on craigslist and other non-MLS real estate sites where they are portraying them as rentals. Consumers are asked to wire funds in exchange for keys they will never receive. So many consumers have fallen victim to this scheme over the years and are devastated by the loss of their hard-earned savings. In February 2022, HAR teamed up with Crime Stoppers and Clear Channel Outdoor to launch an awareness campaign about rental scams. You might have noticed some of the billboards in English and Spanish across Harris County that Clear Channel donated to the cause.
This scam has surged with limited for-sale inventory driving many consumers to the rental market and becoming easy targets. Learn more about this initiative HERE and watch our media announcement HERE.
In-person open houses also remain a safety challenge, with complaints ranging from theft of personal belongings and medications to unacceptable and intimidating behavior. Over the years, HAR has urged REALTOR® members to take all possible precautions when staffing an open house, including always having a “buddy,” making a copy of every attendee’s driver’s license and keeping an eye on attendees as they tour the property.
Safety Tools and Closing Thoughts
The world is an increasingly dangerous place, as you can plainly see in the headlines each day. HAR has always made the safety and wellbeing of you, our valued members, our highest priority. By taking just a little time to be safety-aware and safety-prepared, you can reduce unnecessary risk and provide a safe environment for yourself, your colleagues and your clients