Police advice to Realtors: Every agent is a target but don't carry a gun

After the robbery of two agents, police urge awareness, careful planning and a buddy system.
Published June 19 2015
Updated June 20 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Given the recent armed robberies of two Tampa Bay real estate agents, many Realtors are wondering if they should start carrying a gun.

"No!'' St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway emphatically said Friday. "That person's going to take that gun away from you.''

Holloway was addressing dozens of members of the Pinellas Realtor Organization at a seminar on how to protect themselves in the wake of the June 3 robberies. A retired Air Force major is awaiting trial on charges that he lured two female agents to empty houses and robbed them at gunpoint, shackling his first victim at the hands and feet while he called her husband demanding a $50,000 ransom.

"The market is changing a little bit, that's good, you're out there selling homes,'' Holloway told the Realtors. "But you've got to slow down. That (bad) guy that's going to make a call has got a plan, and you need to have a plan.''

Following the chief to the podium with a presentation both humorous and sobering, police Officer Chip Wells offered specifics on protection while repeatedly stressing that every agent is a potential target.

"These guys will play on the fact that you want to make the sale,'' said Wells, a crime prevention expert. "Are you in a risky business? Yes."

The desire to accommodate prospective buyers leads agents into dicey situations — empty homes in unfamiliar areas where they meet total strangers. Far safer, Wells said, is to ask clients to come to the real estate office first to show their driver's license and be photographed.

"That,'' he said, "might be enough to keep somebody that's thinking of something to keep from doing something."

Conceding that agents often have no choice but to meet people outside the office, Wells emphasized the need for "situational awareness'' — closely observing one's surroundings — and noticing anything out of the normal, "like a kid walking down the street with socks hanging out of his pocket.''

"Why would anyone have socks in their pocket?'' Wells asked and then answered his own question: "To cover their hands'' and not leave fingerprints.

In showing an empty house, Wells said, agents ideally should go with a buddy. If that's not possible, employ what he called a "fake backup" — call the client ahead of time and say, "I'll be glad to meet you there with my partner, Bill.''

"If they're a bad guy, they likely won't show up,'' Wells said.

What if a client does show up and there's something creepy about him? Pretend you've just gotten a call or text saying "Bill'' is running late. Better yet, say Bill had a wreck on the way and you have to leave immediately.

(One agent in the audience offered this suggestion for female agents showing houses alone: Leave a large men's jacket in a conspicuous place. "Genius,'' Wells said, "I'm stealing that for my next seminar.")

Wells echoed the chief's warning about guns, citing FBI statistics that three out of four police officers killed by gunfire were shot with their own weapons.

A far safer alternative, he advised, is tear gas or pepper spray. Wells had the audience howling, though, at his impression of an agent rooting through her pocketbook trying to find the spray as she tells an attacker, "Whoa, just a minute, can you wait while I go through my purse here.''

"There's nothing wrong with them if you are prepared to use it,'' Wells said of the sprays. "To be effective, it's got to be in your hand.''

Other tips he offered:

• Arrive at an empty home at least 40 minutes before the scheduled showing. "Most of the time, if the bad guy is going to meet you, he's going to scope out the area, too. If he's there first, he's controlling the situation, you aren't.''

• Always park on the street. "You can get blocked very easily in a driveway, that's what happened to Beverly Clark,'' Wells said, referring to an Arkansas agent stuffed in her trunk and murdered last year.

• See if the home has a land line. If someone — say an agent in danger — calls 911 and hangs up, police are automatically dispatched. "With a cellphone, if you hit 911, Google may know where you are but I don't have a clue,'' Wells said.

• Open all exterior doors; they are escape routes. "Don't forget to check the fence gates," he added. "There might be a 6-foot stockade fence.''

• Dress safely. "If something happens, if you're wearing 6-inch heels I don't think you're going to be running too fast.''

Wells questioned the rationale behind one staple of the real estate trade — business cards and advertising materials with glamor shots of agents.

"That's how a lot of these guys are picking their victims,'' he said.

At the end of the seminar Wells passed out a list of mobile phone apps that agents can use to send silent alerts. Alicia Lea Santos, an agent with Charles Rutenberg, found that valuable, as she did many of the tips.

"I was looking into getting a gun until today, but I'm probably not going in that direction,'' she said. "I'm also second-guessing putting my picture on (bus) benches.''

One of several male agents in attendance, 6-foot, 5-inch Mark Thirey of Clearwater Harbor Realty, said the presentation convinced him that no agents are immune from danger.

"Forty percent of the agents who've been murdered are men,'' Thirey said. "This could happen to me, it could happen to anyone here."

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.