Safeguarding Your Personal Information When Searching for Your Next Home: Your Guide

Searching for a new home is an emotional experience. It starts with lots of energy and excitement; you probably have daydreams about where you’re going to live and what it’s going to feel like. There might be some stress as well; perhaps you need to find a place by a certain date for work or family reasons. Maybe you’re closing on your current home’s sale and so will have nowhere to go if you don’t find a house between now and then. There’s also the intensity of putting in bids, not knowing whether your offer stacks up, and the disheartening experience of having yet another bid go nowhere. And then you have to worry about your finances and try to estimate what’s going to be a comfortable expenditure for you in the near and far future, despite being abundantly aware that life can change in an instant.

Beyond all this, there are now safety considerations people need to have in mind when they’re searching for a home. The following aims to help with at least one of these stressors by walking you through a few important steps you should be taking to safeguard your personal information and that of your family as you search for a home.

How Your Data Is Mined

In today’s digital world, data is embedded in everything. Data has actually surpassed oil as the most valuable commodity on the earth. Think about that for a moment. Your data is incredibly valuable, so much so that it’s actively sought after in both safe and unsafe ways.

Social media platforms, businesses, websites, phone and tablet applications, and even live events are collecting your data. This data can then be used internally to help better tailor your experience and upsell you on additional products. It can also be sold externally to larger corporations that use your data for everything under the sun. This might mean getting more spam calls if your number is given to a cold-calling scam company. It might mean social media platforms sharing your data with political parties so they can sway elections (social media platforms have a vested interest in who you’re voting for because social media regulation is now a major discussion). This information is sold en masse to advertisers who target you with marketing and ads, trying to sell you things.

How Does This Apply To The Search For A Home?

When you’re searching for a home, there are a ton of different platforms and options available to you, but just like standard websites, applications, and devices, not all of these platforms are safe to use. You might have heard of common homebuying locations like Zillow, Redfin, and Trulia.

These types of sites make the vast majority of their revenue by collecting your private data (your income, where you live, where you’re looking to live, the size of your household, and your contact information). They then provide this data to real estate agents and other businesses that pay them for what they’re sharing. For instance, the Zillow Group which owns Zillow made more than 1400 million dollars in 2021 alone from selling user data to real estate agents. Zillow and Trulia together earned more than 1.3 billion dollars in 2018, with selling data providing the bulk of that income.

Why Does It Matter If People Have My Data?

At the minimum, your data being sold to other people means you’re going to be dealing with more spam. Calls from companies trying to sell you something, calls with no one on the other end (this is often a data collection service trying to figure out what times people answer their calls so they can then sell this information along with your phone number to another company), emails filled with scams or advertisements and tons of unwanted ads. No one needs more of this in their life, especially not as scams evolve into more effective tricks.

At the maximum, your data could be used to steal your identity, rack up tens of thousands of dollars in your name, and/or commit cybercrime. Cybercrime is on the rise and is only expected to grow. It’s vital that people learn how to protect their own information as we move forward into an increasingly virtual existence.

Research The Platforms You Use Carefully

It’s essential that people start thinking defensively when using platforms, websites, and apps. Those long terms of service agreements that you used to skip through? It turns out they’re really important. Of course, they’re designed to be as long and confusing as possible, to bore you until your eyes glaze over, so you don’t read the fine print, but there are often shortcuts to better understanding what you agree to when you use a platform. 

There are several websites that summarize the basics of every term of the service agreement, drawing your attention to elements that deserve your attention. You can also search for the particular terms of service agreement summary that you’re considering and find videos or articles breaking down the key components of a particular agreement.

This is now a part of digital literacy that everyone needs to be employing and teaching their children about. You’d be shocked what you agree to when you click “accept.”

What Sorts Of Things Hide In Terms Of Service Agreements?

You might be allowing companies to sell your photos. Instagram, for instance, is allowed to use, delete, modify, or publicly display your photos; Twitter grants these rights to its affiliates, allowing them to make money by selling your photos.

You might be agreeing to have an account forever. That’s right, forever. Skype, for example, doesn’t allow accounts to be deleted.

Often you’re allowing companies to track your activity on the internet after you’ve left their site. This is what cookies are. Have you been absentmindedly clicking through pop-ups about cookies? For instance, if you’re logged into Facebook on your device, the company is tracking all your online behavior on every site that has a Facebook like or share button. They even track some things while you’re logged out of Facebook.

You’re also often agreeing to have your data shared with law enforcement without your knowledge. When you signed up with your cell phone provider and LinkedIn account, you agreed that anything of yours could be shared with law enforcement without them giving you a heads-up.

You might also be signing away your right to file a class action lawsuit. Anyone using the PlayStation Network, for example, has agreed not to sue Sony as part of a class action suit. 

You likely are also agreeing to the company’s right to hold onto content you create even after you delete it. Even after you take down things you’ve posted, many applications and sites can still access that stuff and do with it what they see fit.

Finally, almost all terms of service agreements contain a clause that specifies that they’re allowed to change the agreement whenever they want. In many cases, this clause states that they don’t have to inform you of changes and that it’s your responsibility to regularly review the agreement to see if things have changed.

What This Means For Real Estate

If you’re freaked out about the data you’re giving away, stop for a moment and take a breath. There are people working on solutions to these kinds of problems. There are politicians lobbying for easier-to-understand terms of service and restrictions on what sort of data is legally collectible at certain times. There are organizations trying to create safe alternatives to a lot of the common websites and apps available to people. When it comes to real estate, there is a new home search rated better than Zillow. You can also talk to your real estate agent about the protective measures you want to take.

Quite often, real estate agents have a vested interest in keeping your data safe. They don’t want other agents profiting from your data and the work they’re doing with you. This means that often, agents are just as concerned about your data privacy as you are. Talk to your agent about what options are available in your area.

Study Guides For Safer Platforms

As mentioned above, there are alternatives to the standard real estate search platforms. Given the variety of choices available, niche content creators are releasing guides and breakdowns of different options, outlining the pluses and negatives of each. If you take the time to watch this video detailing EXP, you’ll know that the more features an option has, likely the longer the content about it is going to be.

Directly Ask Agents About Data Safety

When talking to potential real estate agents, you can ask about what platforms they recommend for searching as well as the data protection elements in place. It’s okay to go with a different agent if you’re not satisfied with the steps they’re taking to keep your data secure. It’s also okay to go with a different agent if you find out that someone you were considering buys people’s data from some of the aforementioned companies.

Follow The Latest Real Estate And Cybersecurity News

You can also learn about your options by paying attention to real estate news. When companies release developments, merge, or otherwise alter themselves, there tends to be a lot of information floating around on the web about what the benefits and drawbacks are of these changes. For example, EXP World Holdings recently bought the leading real estate search tech company Showcase IDX. Understanding what this purchase means can help you sense what problems people in the world of real estate are seeking to solve at the moment.

Understand There Are No Excuses When It Comes To Safety

Humans at large need to start standing up for themselves and their rights. If an agent hasn’t thought about the potential repercussions of shady data dealings or brushes away your questions with,” well, that’s what everyone’s doing, so…, know that you have rights. It’s easier than ever for agents to select a safer home search platform and install it onto their personal real estate website. There are no excuses for data carelessness in 2023. Not with the cybercrime rates being what they are. Not with billions of dollars lost each year to cybercrime (and think, that only includes the cybercrime that was noticed and reported; the actual cost could be much higher).

Practice Good Digital Hygiene

Of course, you also need to take responsibility for your behavior online and on the apps you use. If you do have your data leaked, stolen, or legally collected, you want to make sure that people can’t harm you with this information. This means, foremost, using strong passwords. You’ve probably been told you shouldn’t use the same password for every platform, and this is true; if someone manages to get one of your passwords, they shouldn’t then have access to everything you do in the digital realm.

You also want to be sure your devices are up-to-date and that you have adequate virus and malware protection. Often, devices release updates when a problem within their security is found. This means that updates should be done as soon as possible, as prior to the update, there’s a loophole that data collectors or hackers can take advantage of.

Moreover, you need to be cognizant of your social media presence and what information you’re releasing. Most people know that they shouldn’t post their addresses online. What many people don’t realize is that if they take a photo of their kid on the way to prom outside their home and post it on social media, the average person with the smallest bit of tech skills can find out where they live. All it takes is a quick search of when local high schools held their proms and then a wander through the streets in that area using Google Maps street-view. Be careful what you’re sharing on social media, as this can be used in tandem with the data that companies are collecting on you to create a full picture of you that can be sold or used for marketing or cybercrime purposes.

Finally, you want to be cautious of any emails or calls you get from senders you don’t recognize. This is still the most common way people have their identities stolen or their bank accounts accessed. 

The above information should have made it clear that your digital security is of vital importance. Taking the proper steps to ensure you and your family are safe from cyber threats and data miners is simply a part of life in this era. If you have digital assets for work or other purposes that are especially valuable, you may want to speak to a local cybersecurity team about the steps you can take to protect yourself and these assets.

Safeguarding Your Personal Information When Searching for Your Next Home: Your Guide was last updated February 5th, 2023 by Allen Brown