We live and work in a world increasingly defined and informed by our online presence. In the wake of acts of physical violence carried out against Realtors®, the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) has made Realtor® Safety a priority issue. However, it’s important to remember that online harassment and threats can have effects just as devastating on your life and livelihood as physical violence. It’s more vital than ever to be aware of the risks and do what you can to limit exposure to this new workplace danger.
Tanya Gersh, a Realtor® in Whitefish, Montana, never asked to become involved in a national conversation about hate groups, political strife, and religion. She was contacted by a relative of a minor figure in a fringe right-wing movement known as the “Alt-Right.” This person was seeking information about selling a property after political tensions threatened to boil over into street protests at the building.
Gersh, lacking this critical context, acted as any Realtor® would have when presented with a lead. She followed up and provided appropriate information about options for the potential client. The prospective seller later reconsidered, and decided to publicize Gersh’s name in a manner that ensured large numbers of politically motivated individuals would see it, accusing her of attempts to “harass [the seller] into agreeing to sell.”
What followed was a nightmare that ruined Gersh’s career and life. The publisher of a notorious neo-Nazi web forum began exhorting readers to engage in a campaign of targeted harassment against Gersh, and published her address, phone numbers, social media information, and email addresses.
“I once answered the phone, and all I heard was gunshots,” Gersh recounted in an interview with the Boston Globe recently, “I have never been so scared in my entire life.”
Gersh and her family received so many death threats and violent communications on every possible platform that she was forced to withdraw from real estate and essentially go into hiding. Such is the power of this type of coordinated harassment campaign, and once it gets started it’s all but impossible to stop.
What can you do to protect yourself? Here are a few guidelines to get you started.
- Separate your professional and personal identity as well as you can: Draw clear lines between social media, email and phone accounts used for business and those used for personal communication. This is easier said than done, but strategies to help include using a business email that can be easily changed or deactivated if it’s compromised, and phone-forwarding services like Google Voice or RingCentral for your business phone number. Consider naming social media accounts after your business or Team, or going with a memorable branded name rather than including your given name if you use Instagram, Twitter, or other tools.
- Limit your presence: Try to review and audit your online presence in other ways, particularly with respect to details like your home address, personal emails, and the information available about your children or spouse. Don’t share information on social media that could be used to physically locate you or your loved ones easily. Search for your name regularly and keep an eye on what results you find.
- Prevention can go a long way: A good policy is to treat your personally available information as if you are ALREADY the victim of “cyberstalking,” and take immediate steps like those outlined in this article from the Association of Progressive Communications.
- Research your clientele: It can be as important to find out about who is soliciting your advice as making sure they see good things about you online. If an interaction with a prospect feels “off” in any way, before you commit to taking them on, do your research. Have they given you a real name? Does a search for that name turn up anything that warrants more research on your part? This can be a fine line – everyone is entitled to excellent service and will at some point have need for the services of a good Realtor®, but a good understanding of your client’s specific situation can be critical to maintaining a positive professional relationship.
- Monitor your online identity closely: With the advent of an array of tools intended to “rate” and classify all kinds of businesses and allow for public feedback, it’s important to know what people are saying about you online. Keep an eye on all these systems, including Zillow, Yelp, Angies’s List, RatedAgent, and others. A name search for yourself should turn up results readily. Most of these systems have options for removing obviously fake feedback and will work with you to identify if there’s a problem, but you should always be prepared to take the first step.
Tanya Gersh is now the plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit that may help redefine the legal constructs that are used to curb abusive and harassing behavior online, toward professionals and private citizens alike. The Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups are contributing to her efforts to go after the people who targeted her and hold them accountable, and while that’s a positive step, no one should be forced into that position. Take steps now, while you can, to mitigate these dangers to your personal life and real estate practice.