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Avoid real estate scams with these virtual investigators

(REAL ESTATE TECHNOLOGY) As real estate scams increase, services such as Fireball Approves are joining the fight by offering an array of background check services.

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Man seated at kitchen table with laptop and checking phone, searching to avoid real estate scams.

Daily business across every industry has continued to find a home online, as more consumers are using websites, apps, and other digital services to complete any number of tasks. Real estate is not immune to this, with trends year over year showing users flocking to digital tools to assist with every step of the process. Whether it’s looking for a new home, rental property, apartment, or anything else, it’s clear that this industry is embracing the internet to power transactions.

Unfortunately, this also means that there is a growing number of real estate scams being carried out as well, which can include fake listings for properties, landlords, realtors, and associated services. Apartmentlist.com states that as many as 5.2 million U.S. renters are affected annually, and that 43.1% of people encounter a listing they believe to be fraudulent during their search.  Forbes reports that the FBI estimates as much as $150 million is lost per year in relation to real estate, with wire fraud being a major factor.

Sadly, this appears to be tied hand in hand with the current pandemic, as it has forced more online interactions in a time where face-to-face help may not always be possible or available.

Some services have already appeared that aim to help consumers combat and avoid such schemes, such as Scamlord.ai, which is operated by Onerent and was featured on Product Hunt. Using machine learning, it has analyzed thousands of fake listings in order to observe and find patterns. From this data, it can help guide users away from anything that might be part of real estate scams.

Another service is Fireball Approves, which utilizes background checks to help customers find information over a number of possible inquiries. From their website, Investicheck covers a wide variety of options that are broken down into people and real estate categories (with more to come). The former covers things such as a background sweep, asset confirmation, social media perusal, and even locating someone who might be missing.

The real estate side of things promises ways for renters to look into the validity of listings in order to protect themselves. This includes confirming that the lister is who they say they are (owner or landlord) and checking for past criminal or court actions. Fireball Approves can do this for short and long term properties, and even covers vacation options.

Likewise, additional offers include student housing checks (proper zoning and management validation), obtaining photos of the exterior and interior of a property, and researching legal matters such as liens, the deed, and anything related to possible foreclosure.

In a sense, Fireball Approves is another necessary safeguard against a new and emerging type of crime. A blog post on the site details ways such actions are performed, including international AirBNB impersonations, local scammers breaking into properties and listing them as available, or bypassing lockboxes and then inviting customers to sign a fake lease. Even as this new type of fraud has appeared in the form of real estate scams, Fireball Approves has worked diligently to remain informed on their tactics, responding to new scams and combating the issue with experience.

Simply put, you can never be too sure what may be a real or fake listing. Just as you might take necessary precautions to confirm identities, it will always be in your best interest to be as safe and thorough as possible. Fireball Approves and Scamlord.ai are part of the growing number of tools at your disposal. With losses potentially in the thousands, it may be worth the small investment for the peace of mind it affords.

Robert Snodgrass has an English degree from Texas A&M University, and wants you to know that yes, that is actually a thing. And now he's doing something with it! Let us all join in on the experiment together. When he's not web developing at Docusign, he runs distances that routinely harm people and is the kind of giant nerd that says "you know, there's a King of the Hill episode that addresses this exact topic".

Real Estate Technology

Is Internet access a basic human right? T-mobile thinks so

(TECH NEWS) Last year, T-Mobile announced a plan to bring free and at-cost internet access to 10 million homes in the US; 2020 has made this mission crucial.

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Student viewing internet on tablet.

Modern classrooms practically require students to have access to the internet in order to succeed. This was the case well before COVID forced a national switch to remote online learning.

It’s hard enough to rely on public computers and WiFi networks to complete school work under ordinary circumstances — and I speak from experience there. But campuses, libraries, and cafes are still closed or limiting access in most places. The school year is already a month in progress, yet the struggle to get online is still too real.

This was captured perfectly in a photo that received viral attention on Instagram when the fall semester started: Two teenagers seated on the ground outside of a Salinas Taco Bell, using the restaurant’s internet for their schoolwork.

Fortunately, in their case, the girls’ school district was able to help them obtain a Wi-Fi hotspot. And they’re continuing to distribute hotspots and laptops widely to its student body.

In light of this, T-Mobile is investing $10.7 billion dollars over the next 10 years into ensuring youth are no longer put into situations like that. The company is partnering up with school districts to provide students with a free wifi hotspot and 100 GB of data year (or roughly 8 GB of data per month).

An estimated 16.9 million US youth currently lack internet. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, T-Mobile Chief Marketing Officer Matt Staneff cites his concern that a majority of school-age kids consider homework to be a major source of stress in their lives.

Of course, telecommunications companies are clearly aware of how much our educational systems depend on the internet. It is unquestionably the most comprehensive collection of human knowledge and culture ever. It can no longer be considered just a luxury or a novelty. It’s a critical tool for academic and career success.

While he acknowledged the potential business opportunity in providing schools with internet connectivity, Stanek claims T-Mobile’s intentions are good. He stated, “We recognize there’s a problem in society of kids not being connected. We want to do more than just try to win customers. This is a huge problem.”

Staneff concedes that suitable Internet access extends to hardware, too: “[sometimes students] need a bigger screen, which is why [T- Mobile is] also offering at-cost, larger-screen devices.”

But even if T-Mobile has the best intentions, the fact remains that they aren’t a charity. Service providers like T-Mobile would probably not be too happy about the lost “business opportunity,” should tablets and internet access be made freely available to every student. The schools are public, and they rely on the internet, yet the internet is privatized.

The responsibility to solve the civic issues brought on by the pandemic is increasingly falling onto the private sector. If T-Mobile is willing to offer the money and infrastructure to help kids get an education, that’s a step in the right direction.

Yet it prompts the question: Should we consider internet access to be a human right? Because as long as the web remains corporately controlled and commodified, the access gap will persist and our schools will pay the price.

This article was originally published in 2020.

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Real Estate Technology

Realtors, you should be using AI – here’s how (and how not to)

(TECH NEWS) AI is changing the course of the real estate industry on a seismic scale. What does that mean for real estate pros?

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Man looking at phone, showing advancement of AI technology while searching for housing.

Artificial intelligence is hot everywhere, but it’s more than just hot for real estate – it’s poised to reshape the entire industry. To stay relevant, Realtors, brokerages and agents need to know how to use AI to their advantage and understand how it’s empowering consumers.

So, let’s break it down. What, exactly, can AI do for real estate pros?

“AI can be a complete game changer and give you an edge against your competition,” David Conroy, director of Emerging Technology for the National Association of Realtors, said at November’s 2020 REALTORS Conference & Expo.

That competitive edge can come from using Big Data to work smarter: being more efficient + closing transactions more quickly + cutting costs + marketing more strategically = more happy clients and more money for agents.

The term “Big Data” can be intimidating to non-techies, but don’t worry. No one needs to add “data scientist” to their LinkedIn profile. But even as venture capital is pouring into proptech startups, the real estate industry as a whole still seems to be lagging.

Actual data scientist Julianne Heller of NAR says some companies think it will be too costly and take too much work. They don’t understand or trust it. There’s also a fear that AI could replace people and cut jobs.

“AI does not equate to replacement, but it supports human work and makes our lives easier,” Heller said at the National Association of Realtors’ conference. “AI can improve the buyer and seller experience.”

What AI is

To put it simply, artificial intelligence is what lets Amazon’s Alexa talk to you and cars drive themselves. Its algorithms use data to mimic human intelligence, including learning and reasoning. Then there’s machine learning, where algorithms analyze enormous amounts of data to make predictions and assist with decision making. We’re putting them both under the same AI umbrella.

What AI can do

As AI continues to learn and evolve, the benefits for real estate professionals and consumers are getting easier to see.

Access to data lets consumers feel more in control. Researching properties on sites like Zillow and Trulia lets consumers feel like they can make smarter decisions. Now marketplace sites are using AI to better understand consumer preferences to improve their search experience. On sites like HomeLight, AI lets buyers and sellers find agents with specific experience who are likely to make them or save them the most money.

More nuanced pricing is more accurate. The incredible number of data points lets agents go beyond pulling the usual three comps from MLS. By analyzing past data, AI can put a value on things like proximity to Starbucks, local Yelp reviews and what buyers with similar preferences have paid for similar properties. It’s AI that lets Zillow’s Zestimates “read” listing photos, identify features like granite countertops and adjust pricing based on the value they add.

Buyers get better matches with potential homes. AI can go beyond the usual filters and tap preferences of similar buyers to narrow potential candidates or expand the search area. Zeroing in on the closest-to-perfect properties saves time and money and lowers clients’ stress as transactions close more quickly.

Chatbots offer 24/7 communication between clients and agents. A client who just thought of a quick question before bedtime might be able to get an answer while her agent is sleeping peacefully. Consumers can also get answers to common questions about topics like property tax valuations’ relationship to market values. (Pro tip: Agents can also take advantage of useful communication and other proptech tools.)

Prospecting and connecting with past clients get more efficient. Some examples: Re/Max’s First app analyzes an agent’s contacts to predict who might be ready to sell soon, leading to well-timed “just checking in” calls. Homesnap Pro’s Likelihood to List feature predicts which homeowners might sell in the next year.

Marketing budgets work harder when they’re data driven. AI can show who’s buying, where they “live” online, including their social media, and what digital and offline marketing channels are the best way to reach them with paid ads or organic strategies.

Trends big and small stand out. Not only can AI forecast the future for cities and neighborhoods, it can predict future property values or the best time to sell for a particular house on a particular street.

What it can’t do

For all of the amazing things AI can do in real estate, there are a few things it’s not great at.

Pocket listings don’t pop up. It doesn’t have access to private listings that agents hear about through various grapevines. (Although NAR and local Realtor boards have banned them as unfair, pocket listings seem unlikely to disappear in fiercely competitive markets.)

Chatbots aren’t all that smart – yet. They can answer basic questions or get newsletter sign ups, but “Sorry, I don’t understand” can add frustration.

Bias can be baked-in. When AI output is based on data that reflects systemic housing discrimination – such as redlining and higher mortgage interest rates for minority groups – it can perpetuate those issues. (Pro tip #2: Agents, NAR’s new Fairhaven training simulations are a great way to make sure you aren’t part of the problem.)

What only humans can do

AI’s data powers can put agents in front of the right buyers and sellers at the right time, but it will always be up to humans to close deals.

There’s no substitute for personal relationships. Chatbots can’t negotiate. A C-3PO can’t show houses. Data can’t intuit anything from the look on a client’s face when she first walks into a house. Sellers and buyers want to work with agents they trust to advise them.

Only people know the stories. Agents with hyperlocal expertise know the history of the neighborhood or maybe the story behind the local mom-and-pop grocery store that’s been there for 50 years. Storytelling skills can close deals.

What’s next

As advanced as AI is, it’s still in its infancy. The amount of data will grow. Chatbots will become smarter and answer more complex questions. Projects like the IBM Policy Lab will focus on how public policy should make sure AI helps, not hinders, the common good.

Most importantly, innovation in AI will continue to sprint ahead. If real estate pros want to stay in the game, they need to bring both Big Data and personal expertise to the table.

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Real Estate Technology

Power up your daily checklists and task organization with Macro

(REAL ESTATE TECH NEWS) Got a lot of tasks and lists to organize? Macro lets you streamline your repetitive tasks and checklists with its “powerful checklists”.

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Front web page for Macro, super powered checklists, supercharges your team's processes.

If repetitive tasks and checklists are part of your daily workflows, there’s a new tool, which says it can “supercharge your team’s processes.” Macro is a product that lets you create checklists to document workflows, assign tasks to team members, and automate common actions.

Macro checklists are designed to let you complete various tasks in a single tab. Once you’re signed up, you can view and create all your checklists in the “Library” section. To create a new checklist, you simply select the “Create New” button on the top right.

In the Checklist Editor, you can configure your checklist to fit the process that best works for you. You can build a comprehensive workflow by adding a task-type menu, form, or file upload field.

Macro checklists let you use variables to set up custom fields that will be filled out by anyone who runs your checklist. This helps enable templated actions you can use over and over again. For instance, you can create a variable called “Name”. If you’re sending out a Welcome email for your subscription service, you can add the “Name” variable to it, and the name of the new subscribers will then automatically appear in the email.

After your checklist is ready, you can hit save and start adding automation to your checklist by defining a trigger and its action. For example, you can pre-define which tasks are assigned to a certain team member. So, when a checklist is run, it will automatically be assigned to that person. You can even specify dependencies for each task. If Task A and Task B need to be completed before Task C can begin, they will remain inactive until the dependent tasks are marked as complete.

When your checklist is polished and ready, you can invite people to view or edit it. And, after you start running your first checklist, you can use Macro’s built-in reporting to keep track of your progress and view metrics in the Tracking section. From there, you can see what tasks are completed and which ones are pending. If needed, you can also set deadlines for each checklist and reminders for each task.

Macro also offers templates for common use cases, such as employee and customer onboarding, podcast workflow, and new candidate on-site process. Right now, it is still in public beta so it’s free to use. On the company’s website, it says Macro “will always offer a free version.” However, what features the “free plan” will include aren’t clear, but enterprise plans will be announced soon.

Overall, Macro is easy to use, and it packs a lot of punch in a neat little tool. If you’d like to give it a test drive, you can sign up on the company’s website.

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