If you’re shopping for a house, you know how taxing the experience can be. You’re juggling your wants and needs, information about the market in general, visiting homes, putting in offers, getting rejected for offers, searching for new homes, wondering if what you want just isn’t available, considering settling, touring homes you don’t want, touring homes you can’t afford, making compromises and then changing your mind and unmaking those compromises—it’s exhausting, to say the least. On top of it all, data security threats are at an all-time high, making it incredibly easy for any of your personal information shared in the search to end up in the wrong hands. The following will explore a few steps you might want to take to help protect your privacy and personal data while shopping for your next home.
Do I Really Need To Worry About Privacy?
In short, yes, everyone needs to be worrying about data privacy these days. Data has surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable commodity, and this means that never has it been more lucrative to pursue a life of cybercrime. No longer is it only financial information that needs to be kept safe; things like your name, address, phone number, email address, medical history, and passwords for mundane site logins (because most people use the same few passwords for everything) are incredibly valuable. Hackers know where people store this information and how to access it. If someone manages to get a few pieces of information, it’s relatively easy for them to fill in the blanks and find what remains to steal an identity.
Even if they don’t take things to the furthest extreme by stealing your identity and then selling it to people in need of a new one, they still might sell your information to call centers, and you can spend the next three years telling people you’re not interested in whatever service they’re trying to sell. When they finally accept the lead is dead (usually after four or more refusals on your part), they’ll sell your number to another center with the additional information of when you answered your phone in the past.
Hackers have figured out that people who are searching for homes reveal a lot about themselves as they search. Their location, income range, marital status, family size, and other factors are all pretty easy to figure out. This information can help cybercriminals quickly filter through potential targets and select the ones that meet their needs.
Understand Unsecured Networks
First and foremost, if you’re searching for a home, you should be doing so on a secured network. Unsecured networks are usually found in the form of free Wi-Fi hotspots. When you’re browsing the internet at the library, while in an airport, in a coffee shop, at a restaurant, or within a business using their guest Wi-Fi, you’re most likely using an unsecured network. While it can be convenient to use these networks for something quick and simple, like checking the score of a game, you don’t want to be entering any personal information or passwords on these networks. You also don’t want to be searching for things that reveal your personal data (homes, medical offices, how-to-quit-your-job articles, etc.). This is because anyone else who is on this network can very easily access what you’re doing if they know how (it’s not a complicated process). Be especially cautious of doing any banking while on an unsecured network. It’s a good idea not to be searching for homes on them either.
Verify Site Credibility While Searching
Because so many real estate agents post about available homes on their websites and then present steps or calls to action that can be performed if you want to get in touch and discuss the home, they’re an excellent data-gathering setup. Always be sure to look for signs that verify the site’s credibility before sharing any information or participating in any calls to action. There are a few ways to do this:
- Look at the SSL certificate. URLs that are secure always begin with HTTPS instead of HTTP. The ‘S’ stands for secure and implies that a site is using a Secure Sockets layer (SSL) certificate. This certificate secures the data that is passed from the browser to the website’s server. You can find the URL by looking at the address bar.
- Look for signs of recent design. Older design elements that appear dated or themes that have been out of style for ages could indicate that the code is old. Older coding is much easier for hackers to meddle with.
- Use security tools. Security tools like the website Virus Total allow you to copy and paste a URL into a search box and conduct a quick scan, letting you know if it picks up any red flags. Consider using safe browsing options as well, and give your antivirus software permission to monitor your online activity.
- Check URLs carefully. Look for missing letters, typos, or easy-to-miss swaps; this can indicate that a site is a carefully-constructed replica used by hackers to mine data. Sometimes these replicas are identical apart from one tweak to the URL like Go0gle.com instead of Google.com.
- Check that any security seal links work. Some websites will have seals that act as validation of their security. If they’re legitimate, these seals will act as links that can be clicked on; they should redirect to the website of the company that provides the seal and additional information about what it means.
- Figure out who owns the site. All websites need to be registered under the name of a person or legal entity. Websites like Whois Lookup can let you search for the owner of a particular webpage.
- Avoid sites with spammy features. Things like blinking banners, pop-ups with big promises, or unbelievably low product prices are all indicators that a website is spam and cannot be trusted. Be especially wary of housing prices that are too good to be true or unusual selling positions like claiming to be out of town but suggesting you go and take a look at the place without them and without a key by peering through the windows. Sometimes there are fake listings of houses that are not actually for sale.
Check Domain Authority And Website Backlinks
There are online platforms that allow you to copy and paste a URL into a search box. When you begin the search, you’ll be presented with a domain authority score. This is a number search engines assign a particular page between zero and one hundred that reflects how trustworthy search engines find the site. You will also often be provided with the number of backlinks a site has; backlinks are something that many real estate agents are focused on when building their sites. They occur whenever other sites refer to the site you’re looking at with a link, this is a backlink. More backlinks typically mean that the site is being vouched for by other sites.
Be Cognizant Of Social Media
Social media can be a wonderful blessing; it connects us with people all over the world whom we would otherwise not be able to interact with, it helps us stay in touch with people from our past, and it can facilitate niche communities for specific hobbies and interests. This being said, social media can share too much information with people. You don’t want to be posting about your home search, nor do you want to be posting about when you’re touring a potential house. This is basically an advertisement to burglars that your current home or apartment is empty.
Be Careful When Using Listing Search Platforms
Many agents use tools that display MLS (multiple listing service) listings directly on their websites. This can provide those shopping for homes access to active listings, but they also need to protect consumer contact and budget information in the process. Many listing search engines include options to limit by cost, location, number of bedrooms, or other features. Again, the factors you’re using to narrow down your home search are incredibly valuable to hackers. In many cases, you’ll find these tools are referred to as IDX, and this might leave you wondering what is idx in real estate? IDX stands for internet data exchange, and it’s actually a broad term that covers policies, software, and standards agents are required to meet when displaying real estate listing information on their websites. It is this exchange that allows agents to safely integrate real estate listings from an MLS database into their websites.
Consider Plugins Carefully
Speak To Your Real Estate Agent
Because agents are dealing with listing searches and people’s privacy often, your agent will probably be able to give you some pointers. If your agent is aware of security measures and offers MLS searches on their own website, stick to their webpage for your searching. This way, you don’t need to worry about other agents collecting your information or their website providers collecting your information without their knowledge.
DuckDuckGo is an alternative search engine that prides itself on keeping your search history private and blocking advertising trackers which follow you around the web and collect your data. It usually takes a week or two to adjust to DuckDuckGo (similar to when you get a new phone and are in the habit of things working a different way). This is because DuckDuckGo doesn’t save your information and use this to predict what you want to find online when searching. Instead of giving you what it thinks you want based on the information it has collected, DuckDuckGo will give you the most popular result for the search.
Be Cautious Around Cookies
Cookies in and of themselves are not bad; they’re often used by websites to tailor your browsing experience. This being said, they can also be sued to keep track of your login credentials, banking or credit card details, location, language preferences, and other factors. Often when you first arrive at a page, there will be a pop-up regarding cookies. It’s a good idea to click “review” instead of “accept” and deselect any unnecessary cookies. Often you’ll have to then click “save my preferences.” It can take a few more seconds than visiting a page normally does, but it helps keep your information safe.
Use A VPN
A VPN is one of the easiest ways to protect your location when using the internet. VPNs give you an alternate IP address meaning anyone tracking your device or behavior (which is most applications and websites today) will be under the impression you’re somewhere else. Many VPN providers also allow you to encrypt internet traffic. As a bonus, VPN services can give you access to content that is region-specific.
Anonymous Email Accounts
Most popular email providers like Gmail and Yahoo collect personal information, which they then automatically share with their community for a number of reasons. There are anonymous email services like ProtonMail, which allow you to keep your identity protected. This makes it far easier to share your email online for accounts and login purposes, as you don’t need to worry about what the site is doing with your email.
The above tips should help keep you safe while you’re searching for a home online. Of course, many of these points apply to non-real estate searches as well.