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Hackers target associations – how to protect your brokerage, yourself

(TECHNOLOGY) Hackers are increasingly targeting associations, and while they set their own policies to protect themselves, here’s how to do the same for you and your company.

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It all seemed so routine. For officials of both the Henderson (TX) and Boulder Valley(CO) public school districts, the email that they received from an existing construction vendor asking them to update their automated payments to new bank information was nothing seemingly out of the ordinary.

Only when vendors began to inquire about the status of payments that the districts had sent did the districts come to realize that the routine change had made themselves the victims of a scam known as a BEC, or a Business Email Compromise.

In each case, the losses ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars before being discovered. Henderson ISD lost approximately $610,000 to the hackers and Boulder Valley Public Schools lost approximately $870,000. The fiscal hit was accompanied by reviews of and changes to their operating procedures to ensure that such a loss wouldn’t happen again in the future.

While the districts tied their losses to public transparency, with information about the vendors and the scope of work that each was involved with available on their websites, government officials said that such schemes are typically quite sophisticated and ongoing long before any request for money, in order to establish a level of trust with their victims.

Secret Service Agent Bill Mack, speaking to the Tyler Morning Telegraph, noted that “[w]e’ve seen an uptick in the number of cases…Contact is often made long before the request for money. Criminals will use a compromised network to gather information about the target. Then, appearing to be a legitimate representative of the vendor, they will often request a simple change in account numbers.

With FBI estimates as to the annual cost of cybercrime reaching over $2 billion dollars annually, and those losses only partially recovered through either the efforts of law enforcement or insurance, it’s important to recognize the fact that as scammers and hackers expand beyond the tired trope of the 419/Nigerian Prince, they’re now targeting new avenues, such as governmental entities and private associations (perhaps even your local real estate board/association).

While professional associations have been the targets of hackers since at least 2010, according to Ed Schipul, they’re coming under increasing levels of attack.

As a professional member of an organization, we depend on their advice, counsel, and information about upcoming trends and events. We rely on the communication that we receive from them to be timely, accurate, and most importantly, not be harmful to us, professionally or personally.

Assuming that the associations themselves are taking steps to protect their cybersecurity, how do we, as members protect ourselves from hackers?

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has tips on staying safe from hackers in an ever-connected world:

• Be suspicious if someone contacts you unexpectedly online and asks for your personal information.
• Only open emails that look like they are from people or organizations you know, and even then, be cautious if they look questionable.
• Be especially wary of emails or websites that have typos or other obvious mistakes.
• Verify the validity of a suspicious-looking email or a pop-up box before providing personal information.
• Don’t immediately open email attachments or click on links in unsolicited or suspicious-looking emails.
• Install good anti-virus software that periodically runs to search for and remove malware.
• Be diligent about using spam (junk mail) filters provided by your email provider.
• Don’t visit untrusted websites and don’t believe everything you read.
• Criminals might create fake websites and pop-ups with enticing messages intended to draw you in and download malware.

In the case of officials at the districts, one measure that was implemented in each is worth remembering in a click-and-send era; they promised to have their respective staffs pick up the phone and call the vendor when any type of banking information was requested, to verify the request before providing information.

When dealing with our associations, if we receive an email or other outreach that seems out of character for them, it’s a good reminder to call and ask them if they’d intended to send it out before we take electronic action.

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Roger is a Staff Writer at The Real Daily and holds two Master's degrees, one in Education Leadership and another in Leadership Studies. In his spare time away from researching leadership retention and communication styles, he loves to watch baseball, especially the Red Sox!

Real Estate Technology

Is that home security system illegally recording?

(TECH NEWS) Just because it’s your home, doesn’t mean much. Home security systems are subject to recording laws of nations and states – are you in compliance?

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I sleep a lot better at night knowing that my house is outfitted with a video security system. To be sure, it has never been easier to set up your own home security system. However, as Lifehacker recently pointed out, “if your cameras can record audio, depending on your state, you run afoul of wiretapping laws if you don’t have consent from people who visit your home.”

Product review site The Wirecutter posits that “setting up cameras to keep an eye on your home is perfectly fine. Recording, on the other hand, can introduce some legal complications. Especially if you’re recording audio in a state that requires dual consent.”

In fact, underscores Lifehacker, “Video and audio recordings have different legal guidelines and there are worlds of nuance to navigate.” For example, in the name of personal security, you are entitled to watch a live feed of your front door, but if you put a camera in your basement and recorded your guests (beats me what they would be doing down in the basement) you’d up in legal trouble – even if it’s technically on your property.

Remember, laws vary from state to state, so you’ll have to check your local laws for specifics, but it’s worth doing before you set up your security system.

Speaking of which, Brickhouse Security suggests thinking about what the reason is behind the installation of a video security system:

“For some homeowners, the main reason to install a hidden camera is to be able to identify a burglar in the event of a home break-in. For others, there is a security issue, restraining order or another circumstance that makes them feel unsafe in their own home.”

Another issue that BHS points out is the legality of installing covert cameras within the home, “While the specific laws pertaining to this issue can vary from state to state, it is widely accepted that filming within the home is completely legal. However, there are exceptions to this statement, and they include recording in places where people can reasonably expect to have privacy as well as recording audio, which is not such a clear-cut issue.”

Click here to read more about hidden camera laws.

Best rule of thumb say many security experts: When deciding whether a hidden camera is the right choice for you, be sure to give thought to the location, whether the room gives people a reasonable expectation of privacy, whether there is any audio recording involved and what the overall objective of the camera is.

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Real Estate Technology

Why graphene is about to take over the world, and techies are betting big on it

(TECHNOLOGY) The tech world is paying close attention to the strongest material around, and its path to production looks a lot like plastics (which were once innovative and cutting edge) – let’s discuss!

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Buzz around graphene has floated through the science and tech world for 15 years now, and its promises are revolutionary. Discovered in 2004, the material is predicted to be the semi-metal that makes science fiction a reality.

Graphene is an insanely strong material. It only has a thickness of 1 atom, making it 2-dimensional. Its carbon structure is easily found in everyday objects like a graphite pencil.

Not only can it stretch up to 25% of its length, it is also the hardest material known today.

A sheet of graphene one atom in thickness is able to hold up the weight of a soccer ball. A sheet with two atomic layers is impenetrable to diamond-tipped weapons. Graphene expands under cooler temperatures and shrinks when exposed to hotter temperatures, making it the only known material to have these qualities.

Another valuable quality is that it is a great electrical conduit. It carries electricity very efficiently and quickly which if turned into batteries, could extend the lifespan of our devices. Graphene could carry electrical currents in materials like clothing, inks, and could rid us of our need for lightbulbs. The one-atom structure can also filter smaller electrons, potentially advancing quantum physics research.

In 2018, a group of scientists in Australia used graphene to create a water filter that could desalinate ocean water and make even the most polluted water drinkable. If large enough membranes were made, it could even solve the fresh water crisis for many countries!

From conserving natural resources, to advancing developments in technology, graphene could improve humanity for the better. So, where is it?

The reality is that mass-producing graphene is still a costly endeavor. However, the world has started to take notice of the material’s potential — the EU has invested $1.3 billion into research from 2013-2023. Although the price of has dropped, by the end of 2015, a 0.35 oz still cost $1,000.

Silicon is still a more favorable material from a production stand-point. Plastics and carbon fiber also faced similar challenges when first discovered. The innovation wave is coming, and when it arrives, we can (hopefully) look forward to a brighter, better future.

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Real Estate Technology

How OpenDoor became a unicorn (a company valued at over $1B)

(BUSINESS NEWS) Good news for direct home sales and fans of adorable mythical quadrupeds – OpenDoor is a unicorn. What does its billion dollar valuation mean for the modern real estate market?

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Online direct home sales is officially a thing. That was probably inevitable, given increasing automation of sales (robots are coming for your jobs – not that they can do them yet!), an ongoing Disrupt All The Things mentality amongst entrepreneurs, and sellers’ frankly understandable desire for a smoother, easier way to get rid of their people boxes.

Seriously, the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Index puts selling a home above quitting freaking smoking in terms of medically significant stress. People are understandably interested in making that suck less.

Enter OpenDoor.

The OpenDoor offer is direct online sales. TL;DR – OpenDoor gets information from the customer, then sets a price for the property being sold, sight unseen. On top of that price, OpenDoor charges a risk fee, a flat 6.7 percent on top of the stated value, to guard against depreciation. In exchange, OpenDoor takes over the selling process, spiffs up the house and sells at a profit. As CB Insights says in its excellent analysis of OpenDoor, it’s basically high tech house flipping.

The OpenDoor pitch is that their system benefits both seller and buyer. They’re impressively honest about the math: They say their flat 6.7 percent is pretty much comparable with the costs and fees associated with traditional real estate sales, which is true. The advantage comes in, says OpenDoor, because the property is then out of the seller’s hands, no muss, no fuss.

That spares them from the hassle of home sales, but it’s also easier on the prospective buyer than the usual peer-to-peer approach. No need to balance two mortgages, no deals contingent on the house selling at a certain price. The house has already been sold at a certain price. Pony up and it’s yours.

We could argue pros and cons all day, but that’s not the point. The point is that, on a small but growing scale, the OpenDoor offer is working. OpenDoor currently operates in and around Atlanta, Las Vegas, Orlando, Phoenix, Raleigh-Durham, and my own fair hometown of DFW. OpenDoor focuses on second-tier real estate markets, avoiding the fluctuations and complex variables of Realty Madness as it is to be found in NYC, the Bay Area and so on.

In those cities, since its start as a spindly little startup in 2014, OpenDoor has served better than 10,757 total customers.

Per the CEO, it currently accounts for 3 percent of home sales in Phoenix and Dallas. Chump change that ain’t.

They’re already thinking expansion. San Antonio and Charlotte are the next towns slated for Missy Elliot treatment. For those of you who missed the 90s, Missy Elliot treatment is of course “put the thing down, flip it, and reverse it.” Surprisingly apt! Seriously, OpenDoor’s missing a trick if they don’t license that one.

Catchy but unpronounceable hooks aside, OpenDoor is taking a fair amount of risk along with their more than fair amount of money. In particular, focused as they are on moving up in the world, OpenDoor is carrying a lot of debt. As of fall 2017 they had borrowed on the order of $600 million to fund home purchases.

At their current 7.4 percent average gross margin on home sales, that’s sustainable, but it’s a whole lot of money to gamble on a new thing continuing to work. A housing downturn or even a comparatively minor shift in value could easily throw that balance out of whack, and while OpenDoor executives state that the debt would still be supportable in a downturn with an increase in risk fee, there’s always the possibility of chilling an already shaky market with too big a jump.

To state the obvious, avoiding that kind of risk is literally why there are Realtors, and why the real estate market in general works the way it does.

Distributing the risk between bank and homeowners, rather than having one organization take it all, minimizes the possibility of failure. OpenDoor has decided to take that risk, and is confident its model will be enough to ameliorate it. Whether that’s the case or not is an open question.

Most unicorns are just shiny horses standing under the right branch. But if OpenDoor can sustainably deliver on its core offer, then score one for the mythical horsebeast.

This editorial was originally published January 9, 2018.

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