Ann Clark, who has been a real estate agent for four years, has had getting a state license to carry pepper spray on her ‘to-do’ list for some time now.
In light of the kidnapping and killing of a real estate agent in Arkansas, she admits it should perhaps be a higher item on her list.
Early Tuesday morning, investigators found the body of Beverly Carter more than 20 miles away from Scott, Ark., where she had an appointment to show a house Thursday but hadn’t been seen since. A suspect, Aaron Lewis, is in custody. When asked by reporters why Carter was targeted, Lewis responded: "Because she was just a woman that worked alone -- a rich broker," The Associated Press reported.
The circumstances around her disappearance and death are prompting those in real estate to take a closer look at safety in the industry.
“I think agents need to be reminded not to get too comfortable, not to get relaxed,” Mrs. Clark says.
Sara Wiskerchen, spokeswoman for the National Association of Realtors (NAR), says the organization works to promote safety awareness and to protect members.
“We are fully committed to our members’ personal safety by continuing to help educate Realtors about potential threats and providing them with resources to protect themselves,” she said in an email, pointing to resources including articles and blog posts, presentations and videos, training courses and tools, and webinars available on the NAR website.
In recent days, the NAR has been sharing information across its social and member communications channels, and thousands are sharing messages of support via Twitter using the hashtag #FindBeverly. "Our association and the Arkansas Association of Realtors are both in the process of actively reaching out to members with additional information," she said.
The NAR site includes this advice from Tim Powell, a detective with the Greenwich, Conn. police department: “Record anything you can if you have a digital recorder or a cell phone. Get a license plate recorded somehow,” says Powell. “Even be on your phone in your car when the other party shows up. You can tell the other party the type of vehicle and the license plate. Get the message out in advance...."
Clark, who is an agent with RE/MAX in Hopkinton, Mass., says the agency constantly gives employees updates and offers safety training courses. “I get continual grooming and reminders coming from the heads of the company,” she says.
She says there are precautions that should be taken when meeting with clients – especially if alone – and when holding open houses. Clark says she always tries to meet at the office first, and to introduce the client to as many people as possible.
But it doesn’t always happen that way -- people are tight on time, and prefer to meet at properties. In those circumstances, Clark says, she always makes sure the office knows when she’s going to meet a client.
“Especially if you’re a woman in a strange house meeting a man you’ve never met before, you want to make sure someone knows you’re there,” she says.
And many agencies have a system for getting agents out of situations where they feel they are in danger. Clarks says she has an established code word with her office so that she can call in under the guise of running late or having a meeting and signal to someone there to either send police or call to check up on her.
“You always keep your phone in hand, and keys nearby,” she says. “We have these things set up for when there’s something that feels a little creepy or doesn’t feel right.”
Patti Carter, a Monitor employee who sells real estate for Coldwell Banker on the weekends, says the company sent out an email alerting agents to the Arkansas incident and reminding them to be careful.
“The bottom line is you’ve got to stick with your gut,” she says. “You can’t be scared, or you’d be scared all the time.”
She says it might be a good practice to have the agents routinely call the office and have a secretary take note of where they’re headed. “It couldn’t hurt, and it would take seconds to do,” she says.
There are other tricks of the trade, too.
Clark says sometimes she will request another agent to come with her, but the practicality of that is difficult, so often her husband will come along to open houses. “It makes a difference that he’s there,” she says. “Especially in a big house in a remote area at end of long driveway and having the public walk in knowing there’s probably a lone agent there.”
She says agents should never go into a room before a client, especially a garage or basement where they could be locked in. And agents should park their cars on the street facing out.
The key is being able to get out of uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situations. “You have to remember you’re in charge of situation and you can say no,” Clark says. “I live in an affluent suburb but you never really know and have to be alert.”
She said some agencies are advising agents to check driver’s licenses at open houses. But in an industry that banks on making people feel at home, that can be complicated.
“You’re walking a fine line between what makes people comfortable and what makes you comfortable,” she says. “But increasingly there are people saying doesn't matter, safety is more important.”