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Yes, real estate agents say, our job can be really dangerous

Rebecca Lemmon Malowany will have a security guard at the property when she has an open house at this $2.95 million home she has listed in Tierra Verde on June 14. “We really take a lot of precautions,’’ she said.
Rebecca Lemmon Malowany will have a security guard at the property when she has an open house at this $2.95 million home she has listed in Tierra Verde on June 14. “We really take a lot of precautions,’’ she said.
Published Jun. 8, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — A few weeks ago, Pinellas County real estate agent Maggie Smith got an inquiry from a man interested in an upscale property, but he argued that the price was too high.

Smith suggested he contact his own agent to make an offer and ended the call. He immediately began texting Smith, calling her a "b - - - -'' and a "whore.''

Then, "he started sending me pornographic pictures, really disturbing pictures of female private parts, and saying, 'this is you.' Also pictures of people who were deformed and saying, 'this is you.' It went on for 24 hours.''

Smith, of RE/MAX Metro, called police, who started a case but warned nothing could be done unless the man physically threatened her. She hasn't heard from him since but remains unnerved by the experience. "It was a little bit scary,'' she said.

Think of dangerous jobs and selling real estate is hardly the first one that comes to mind. Logging, mining, police work, yes, not a business known for glossy ads, beautiful homes and smartly dressed sales people.

Yet as Wednesday's armed robbery of two female Realtors in St. Petersburg showed, real estate has its perils. As of Friday, police were still searching for a gunman who arranged to meet the women at empty houses, then robbed both of their keys and phones.

The robber shackled one of the agents and tried unsuccessfully to get a $50,000 ransom before moving on to the second victim.

In the past few years, Realtors in Arkansas, Iowa and Hernando County have been murdered. Hundreds of other agents have been robbed, beaten or, like Smith, subjected to frightening calls from strangers who at some point might pose an actual threat.

Security experts consider real estate a high-risk profession, according to Robert Siciliano, CEO of RealtySecurity.com in Boston.

"The root of the issue is that you have real estate agents with no formal security training who are then meeting with complete strangers at odd times of the days and in vacant homes,'' said Siciliano, author of The Safety Minute: Living on High Alert told Realtor magazine. "Real estate professionals put themselves at risk at so many points. The industry opens itself up to predators.''

This spring, an agent for Keller Williams Realty St. Petersburg learned that firsthand.

A man calling himself Bob Johnson "kept emailing her and saying he wanted to meet her but only at open houses,'' recalled Rachel Sartain, the agent's broker at Keller Williams.

The request set off alarm bells, and the agent began doing some research. She found the man's real name, that he lived in Panama City, Fla., and that several years ago he had been convicted of solicitation to commit murder. Keller Williams contacted police and quickly sent out a warning to other agents.

Open houses — usually held on Sunday afternoons in the Tampa Bay area — are a popular but potentially perilous way to show off properties. For much of the afternoon, an agent might be alone in the house with an unlocked door — a tempting target for a robber or attacker.

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Smith, the agent who recently received the pornographic texts, held an open house a few years ago attended by three women who claimed to be sisters from Atlanta. One of them purportedly was moving to the bay area.

Sensing something wasn't quite right, Smith hid her purse under an upholstered chair and was relieved to find it still there after the trio left. Then she got a call from her husband, relaying a message from one of her credit card companies. It wanted to know if Smith, who used the card only for gas, had just tried to buy two $500 gift cards at Target.

"They had lifted a credit card from way back in my wallet thinking I wouldn't notice,'' Smith said of her open-house guests. "Who would ever look under an upholstered chair?''

Agents holding open houses generally keep logs on which visitors are asked to write down their names and phone numbers. That's useful, both for making follow-up calls as well as identifying possible suspects if a rare vase or piece of jewelry turns up missing.

To protect its agents at open houses, Smith & Associates, which deals in high-end properties, goes a big step further. It hires security guards, one of whom will be watching out for Rebecca Lemmon Malowany when she holds an open house at a $2.95 million Tierra Verde estate this month.

"We really take a lot of precautions,'' said Malowany, whose husband, Frank, is also a Realtor and frequently goes with her to showings.

When she was starting out in real estate several years ago in Virginia, Malowany had a call from a man who wanted to see a home in a remote location. Though probably surprised when he met her in person — " I don't think he expected me to be 6 feet tall and look like I could take care of myself'' — he nonetheless cornered her in a room.

"I was able to get out of there,'' Malowany said, "but I found out later that he had been aggressive with other agents. Ever since then I've been very careful.''

Although a 2011 survey found that female agents are more likely than male agents to have scary experiences, men aren't immune from trouble.

A few years ago, veteran agent Bob Hendry was alone in his St. Petersburg office when a man walked in and said, "Where's your money?''

"I told him, 'I don't have any cash, it's a real estate office,' and he basically caught me and beat me to a pulp,'' Hendry recalls.

Since then, he has been careful to lock the door and "be very much more aware'' of his surroundings.

Professional Realtor organizations, which most agents belong to, stress safety and security in their orientation for new members.

Among the advice:

• Meet a new client first at the real estate office and get a copy of his or her driver's license before showing property.

• If at all possible, avoid going to an empty home alone, especially with a stranger.

• Let clients enter the house first so they can't shove you inside and slam the door.

• Keep purses or wallets locked in your car.

• Always keep your phone turned on and handy.

Smartphones can be a Realtor's most valuable security tool, especially when an agent has to meet someone at an empty house. Ann Rogers of Coldwell Banker said an agent could be on the phone with a colleague and subtly describe the client in case there is trouble later.

Rogers offered an example: "Hi, Mr. Jones, how are you, I like your such-and-such car. Oh, I see you have a Georgia license plate — where in Georgia are you from?"

"It can be very casual," Rogers said, "but it's the appropriate thing to do if you find yourself about to walk into a house with somebody you don't know.''

Many agents have started using mobile phone security apps like Guardly, which offers location tracking, automatic connection with emergency services and notification to designated individuals like spouses or colleagues. Another app, Secure Show, verifies driver's license, state ID and passport information.

Also gaining popularity is "smart jewelry'' like a new product called Cuff. A wide bracelet, it contains a small device that can pick up audio and send messages.

Some agents still rely on more old-fashioned forms of protection like mace and pepper spray. Not Tammy Plummer.

"It sounds like a great idea,'' said Plummer, a Coldwell Banker agent, "but you're carrying around something that could be used against you.''

One lesson that Plummer learned early on is that even an agent's photo can "attract the crazies,'' as she puts it. When she first started in real estate, her marketing materials included a photo of her in a casual beach setting.

"I got really racy calls, and some saying they would do terrible things to me. So I put on a business suit and had my picture retaken.''

After that, the creepy calls dropped off dramatically.

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