Beware of Internet Imposters
Before the Internet, "People would become what we call ‘Xerox brokers’; they’d Xerox other brokers’ packages," William Spivock, CCIM, remembers. Spivock, of Commercial Specialists in Las Vegas, recently ran across the Information Age equivalent of this unauthorized copying. Spivock found a property advertised on a World Wide Web property information service. He contacted the person who placed the notice, who asked him to sign a confidentiality agreement, which he did. (Spivock remembers thinking it strange that he wasn’t asked to sign a noncircumvent agreement, which would have bound him more closely to the person who posted the notice.) "He told me a [property information] package would be coming out of his Phoenix office, which is where the property manager was," he says. When Spivock called the broker with a potential buyer for the advertised property, he was told to fax the information to the Phoenix office. Only after Spivock contacted the Phoenix office did he find out that the person who placed the property notice on the Internet didn’t control the property.
Spivock was troubled for two reasons. First, "My buyer is in a 1031 [exchange] with the clock ticking, so we don’t have a lot of time to delay," he says. Second, the Phoenix broker was balking at Spivock’s request for what he believed was his fair commission. By putting his client before himself, Spivock is working to see the deal through. What he learned about how people represent themselves on the Internet, however, is a painful lesson. "I tend to trust people," he says. "I assumed professional courtesy and respect for one another would mean that this wouldn’t happen." But it did happen.
Another CCIM reported tracking down a property advertiser, expecting to find a broker’s office staff, but instead ended up in contact with an 18-year-old. The continuing revolution in information technology suggests no quick solution short of adapting a revised trust-but-verify philosophy.
The Web version of the Xerox broker highlights the main challenge of Internet communications: How do you know the people you’re communicating with are who they say they are and do what they say they do? Through e-mail alone, a sender can fool the recipient in a number of ways with switched identities.
When posting properties on a property information service such as CCIMNet (http://www.ccim.com/), notice that the postings are not referred to as listings but instead are called property advertisements, postings, or notices. Simply put, CCIMNet is not a multiple listing service. State regulatory groups have not yet made the adaptation to the Internet, and their attempts to regulate Internet property postings could create headaches if they weren’t acknowledged as what they are: simple Web notices of available properties (or property needs). Commercial brokers may have an easier time adapting to the Internet world than residential brokers, because the commercial brokers have relied less on the residential-driven MLS system than their single-family counterparts.
Many property information services such as Commrex (http://www.commrex.com/) and CCIMNet require people who post properties to attest that they are authorized to market the property. However, check into a property service’s rules before responding to the property notices posted on it. The onus of authority to market the property will be on you and the other broker; the online property information service will have covered itself with appropriate legal language absolving it of any responsibility for the properties posted on it. When contacting people about posted properties over a commercial property information service on the Web, immediately find out if the person either is the owner or has a written commitment from the owner/seller that authorizes your contact to market the property.
When you receive a phone call, you go through many credibility checks, most of them unconscious. If you know the person, is this the voice of that person? Is this the voice of an adult? Does the person sound professional? You may even have caller ID and can verify the caller’s number as being from the office with which you believe you are communicating. E-mail, however, pulls the rug out from underneath you, and you ignore the changes at your own business risk.
Most e-mail users are familiar with spamming — familiar, that is, from the victim’s side. E-mail spammers send out unwanted e-mail advertisements. Though they usually include a return address to respond to "if you are not interested in receiving our notices in the future," you may be better off not responding. If the return address is the correct address, you just may be giving an unscrupulous company your exact e-mail address for future spamming; chances are, it only rented the use of a list of e-mail addresses and didn’t know the individual recipients.
Even worse, many times the address to which you respond is a fake address or is the address of an innocent company or individual whose address or Internet domain was used by the spammer as the foundation for the e-mail barrage. This type of spamming usually occurs when the spammer can gain access to another company’s e-mail servers; firewalls usually can protect a server from this misuse.
A sneakier ploy is for the rogue e-mailer to make it appear that the e-mail came from another server or domain without having to touch that other server or domain. In other words, you may get a sleazy e-mail that says it came from firstname.lastname@example.org, but xyz.com really had nothing to do with it and jsmith doesn’t exist. How did it happen? Almost any e-mail program configuration allows the sender to set the name and e-mail address that appears in the "from" and "send reply to" fields of an e-mail header. (That is how many CCIMs are able to use their ccim.net alias e-mail addresses in their e-mail headers, even though those messages are sent from accounts with different real addresses.) Unlike the firewall option above, there is no way to prevent people from typing your e-mail address into their e-mail program’s header information for fraudulent use — and you may not even be on their recipient list to witness the fraud.
Some technological assistance is available. For example, for $9.95 per year, VeriSign (http://www.verisign.com/) offers a digital certificate that lets your recipient know that a message really came from you and that the message and attachments are free from tampering or eavesdropping.
But there will be no substitution for simple vigilance and skepticism when dealing with people you neither know nor ever even have seen.
Web guru Peter Pike opines that the Internet enhances the role of the "middleman" between buyer and seller. Therefore, brokers can explain, analyze, and — most important — bring credibility to an online transaction. This will grow in importance as online commercial property services become more integrated with each other. The future will include more shared properties between the services (they are already in the negotiation stage), and with different services having different requirements for people posting properties, our industry’s motto may shift from "location, location, location" to "caveat emptor."