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Death of Arkansas agent reminds Realtors to be wary

Warning signLast May, a Salisbury real estate agent was sexually assaulted while showing a home there. According to media reports, the agent met the client at her office in the morning, and they drove together to a house on Secret Garden Court where the first of two attacks took place. The victim got away only after another agent, unaware of the crime, entered the second home on Trantham Lane.

And, just this week, Arkansas authorities discovered the body of a 49-year-old real estate agent in a shallow grave at a cement company 25 miles from Little Rock, Ark. The man charged with capital murder, kidnapping and robbery in the case, who admitted to abducting the agent, said he targeted her because she was a woman “who worked alone, a rich broker.” He pleaded not guilty Tuesday.

“This industry attracts a lot of criminals,” said Dan Starks, founder and president of the Charlotte self-defense school Starks Training Institute Inc. “The majority of Realtors are women. The important thing is not to be afraid, but to be prepared.”

Starks, host of a long-running news series on News Channel 36 called “Don’t be a Victim,” has been a real estate safety expert for 15 years and conducts seminars for the local Realtor community. He said agents become “emotionally disarmed,” because their job requires them to expect strangers to come into a house. The perpetrator will talk to get closer and gain control of the agent, who doesn’t fear the stranger because she is excited about a potential sale. “It’s more common than not,” Stark said. “I’m surprised we don’t see more crime than we do.”

According to preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, 63 professionals in the real estate, rental and leasing industry died while on the job last year. Twenty-five percent of them died from homicides, while 21 percent were victims of falls and slips. Fourteen percent died in roadway accidents. In North Carolina, there were three deaths in the real estate field out of 104 total worker-related deaths last year. A breakdown of the causes in the state was not available.

Hundreds of real estate professionals in the United States have been murdered, according to the N.C. Real Estate Agent Safety Guide. Many more have been raped, beaten, robbed or attacked by animals. In an effort to lower those numbers, the guide, published by the N.C. Association of Realtors and the N.C. Real Estate Commission, contains safety tips that have been compiled by crime victims and real estate associations across the country. They include:

  • Meet clients at the office, photocopy their licenses and verify their identities by calling references or using an Internet site to check for criminal records.
  • Tell someone where and with whom you are going and when you will return.
  • Create and share a distress code word with fellow workers; program emergency numbers into speed dials; and keep a cell phone on hand at all times.
  • Never conduct an open house alone.
  • Don’t make marketing material too personal.
  • Pay attention to gut feelings and unexplained fear.
  • Drive separately from the customer whenever possible. Don’t get blocked in.

The state Realtor association, with 32,000 members, also holds webinars and publishes information on safety issues.

Starks believes that isn’t enough. He recommends that agents carry a concealed weapon or pepper foam, which temporarily blinds an attacker and causes difficulty in breathing.

“Most people don’t think it’s going to happen to them,” he said. “They need hands-on training to learn the reality of what’s going on.”

A survey of attacks on real estate professionals between September 2010 and 2011 says the majority of assaults took place on females, on Thursdays and in the afternoon. In most cases, the victim was alone and had been lured with a request for a tour, according to the 2011 Realtor Safety Report by AGBeat, Moby and Safety Awareness Firearms Education. Guns were the most commonly used weapons. Realtors were most often targeted with the intention of robbery, but this often led to murder. The survey said there were five reported sexual assaults against agents in North Carolina, or 0.20 percent of the state’s total, in that time frame.

Kathleen Rebhan, owner of Weichert, Realtors – Rebhan & Associates, has been in the business for 20 years. The Charlotte-area broker says she never felt threatened or uncomfortable in her job.

“You have to be aware of your surroundings,” she said. “Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations.” Her agency doesn’t show a home unless the client has been preapproved by a lender to show they are qualified to buy.

Virginia Popovich, a broker and Realtor at Keller Williams Realty in SouthPark, also has sold property for 20 years. She said her working conditions have never victimized her. Popovich follows precautions such as taking another person with her on a call and never meeting an unknown client in a vacant place. She takes 15 to 20 minutes to get to know a customer, preferably at the office, and requires a driver’s license to ensure the identity. Popovich used to carry mace, but it was too cumbersome while her hands were full, she said. However, she has taken several self-defense classes.

 ─ The Associated Press contributed to this report

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