10 Strategies Your Brokerage Needs To Stave Off Cyber-Crime
It seems like every day there’s a new data breach or cyber threat making headlines, and while it’s important for everyone to stay vigilant in this environment, the significance of data security in real estate cannot be overstated. Sensitive personal and financial information of both agents and clients regularly passes through the digital walls of a real estate brokerage, making brokerages a prime target for cyber crime. The protection of this data is not just a best practice—it’s a pact made with every client and agent. Make data security a top priority and protect your hard-earned trust with these 10 strategies to improve data security operations at your brokerage.
1. Understand the Scope of Real Estate Data Security
Real estate brokerages handle a diverse array of data, from client financial details to agent’s personal information, property images, transaction histories, and more. Each data subset presents potential vulnerabilities if not protected adequately. Understanding the breadth and depth of data at risk — what information you handle directly, as well as what information is handled by vendors and services you use — is the first step toward ensuring comprehensive real estate data security.
2. Regular Risk Assessments
Just as the real estate market evolves, so do cyber threats. Conducting regular risk assessments can help brokerages identify potential vulnerabilities in their systems. By pinpointing these weak spots, brokers can take proactive measures to strengthen real estate data security. Be sure you are up to date on FTC Data Security requirements, including data storage and (oft-overlooked) destruction. Depending on the size and complexity of your brokerage, you may want to consider hiring a security expert to help you assess your risk and implement mitigation strategies.
3. Secure Physical Access Points
While digital threats are a significant concern, physical breaches – unauthorized individuals accessing office spaces or hardware – can be equally damaging. Ensure that physical storage spaces, server rooms, and workstations have restricted access. Use security measures like surveillance cameras, alarm systems, and access logs.
4. Encrypt Sensitive Data
Encryption, encryption, encryption. Because of the nature of and volume of sensitive information real estate brokerages handle, encryption is an absolute cornerstone of real estate data security. When data is encrypted, even if it falls into the wrong hands, it remains indecipherable. Ensure that sensitive information, especially that which is transmitted online, is encrypted both at rest and in transit.
5. Implement Strong Access Control
Not every member of your team needs access to all the data. Implement role-based access controls that grant data access only to those who need it for their specific job functions. This not only reinforces real estate data security but also reduces the risk of accidental data mishandling. Don’t forget to update access immediately when someone moves on from the brokerage, and to regularly check on who has access to what data.
6. Educate and Empower Your Team
Your real estate data security is only as strong as your least informed team member. It only takes one person clicking on a phishing email or setting a super-easily-guessed password and huge parts of your brokerage ecosystem could be at risk. Implement strong policies around data retention and destruction, cyber security, and data breach notifications and ensure your agents and employees understand and adhere to them. Regularly conduct training sessions to keep your team updated on the best practices for data protection, the importance of strong, unique passwords, how to recognize and avoid phishing attacks, and any software available to them through your brokerage to help manage sensitive information.
In addition, you can protect your clients by educating them about common real estate scams like wire fraud — crafting a notification like this one from NAR can help your agents give clients peace of mind throughout closing.
7. Back-Up Data Regularly
While securing data is crucial, having reliable backups is equally vital, especially in real estate where you’re dealing in such a time-sensitive, process-driven facet of your clients’ lives. Regular backups ensure that in the event of data loss, due to threats like ransomware attacks, brokerages can restore their operations quickly without significant disruption to transactions, payments, and other critical processes.
8. Use Secure Communication Channels
Broker-agent and broker-client communication often involve the exchange of sensitive information like account numbers, social security numbers, etc. Prioritize the use of secure communication channels, whether it’s encrypted email services or secure file-sharing platforms, to protect clients’ information and prevent unauthorized access.
9. Keep Software Updated
Outdated software can have vulnerabilities that cybercriminals exploit. Ensure that all software, including Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, operating systems, and firewalls, are regularly updated. This also extends to your agents and their personal devices, which often end up being used on the job. Remind them to update software on any devices that access brokerage information.
10. Monitor and Respond to Breaches
Despite best efforts, breaches can happen. Having a robust monitoring system in place can help detect irregularities early. If a breach does occur, having a well-defined response plan ensures swift action, minimizing damage and reinforcing client trust. While you can’t predict with certainty what will happen (if you could, you’d prevent it, right?) it can help give you a head start to build some well-considered notification templates in advance. Remember — some states have specific guidelines concerning data breach notifications, so be sure to follow any local regulations.
The foundation of any successful real estate brokerage lies in the trust it builds with its agents and clients. Real estate data security isn’t just about protecting numbers and files; it’s about safeguarding the brokerage’s reputation and credibility. Through vigilance, education, and proactive measures, brokerages can meet ever-evolving data threats head-on and keep their clients and agents safe.
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