Don’t Become a Victim of the Internet

data security concept, mobile application access, login and password

Each day we turn to the Internet to find answers to our questions, perform our banking, and run our businesses. We enter our personal information without a blink of the eye. But what happens when that information gets into the wrong hands?

The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) logged 301,501 complaints involving Internet crime, totaling over $1,418.7 million in losses from 2013 to 2017. These complaints ranged from business email compromise to ransomware, tech support fraud, phishing and extortion. You must always be vigilant when providing personal information online or granting remote access to a computer.

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Mass. Governor Charlie Baker speaks to over 450 Realtors® at Annual Realtor® Day on Beacon Hill

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker was the keynote speaker at MAR’s 33rd Annual Margaret C. Carlson Realtor® Day on Beacon Hill. Governor Baker is the first sitting governor to address Realtors since Governor Mitt Romney in 2003. The Governor focused his remarks on the need for housing production to meet the state’s inventory crisis.

He started out his remarks by recognizing Realtors® as having a seat at the table when it comes to working to create more housing in the state, “I am … very appreciative of the role that you play as a critical partner with us in dealing with the housing crisis here in the commonwealth. Your endorsement and your support of the Housing Choice bill is an important reason why we are optimistic that this landmark housing production legislation can come to my desk sometime before the end of this legislative session,” he said.

Realtors® understand first-hand the difficulties that buyers, sellers and renters have when there is not enough homes for sale. It makes it difficult for everyone who needs a place to live. Governor Baker expressed his understanding of the problem and explained what he wants to do, “Housing is a hard problem, but in Massachusetts we like to solve hard problems. I do believe, at this point in time, we have come up with a solution that people can get behind and put to work. We want to build 135,000 units of housing over the course of the next 6 or 7 years, and this legislation that we proposed is a comprehensive strategy to get us there.”

The Governor then focused on his Housing Choice program and the need for looking at reforming zoning as critical to meeting his goal, “More than 67 municipalities qualified and earned the Housing Choice designation last month. They are pledging to help us meet the housing challenge. However, we need one critical reform to make the most impact.  We need to make it easier to change zoning and grant special permits to allow housing production.”

With end of the legislative session rapidly closing, Governor Baker emphasized the need to getting his housing legislation passed, “The legislative session is ending in less than two months, and we cannot leave housing as unfinished business.  The housing issue is too important to our economy, to our communities, and to our future.  It is too important to the families that need homes.”

Click here for a video produced by the Governor Bakers press office from the event.

MAR Opposes Energy Scorecard Bill

MAR issued the news release below in response to An Act relative to consumer access to residential energy information that was filed by Governor Baker on Tuesday, April 3. MAR opposes mandatory energy scoring at the time of transfer.

Massachusetts Realtors® Oppose Energy Scorecard Bill Requiring Mandated Energy Scoring at Time of Sale

Bill will not improve energy efficiency, will hurt moderate-income homebuyers and restrict needed inventory reaching the market.

WALTHAM, Mass. – April 3, 2018 – The Massachusetts Association of Realtors® (MAR) came out today in opposition to An Act relative to consumer access to residential energy information, because it won’t meet its intended goals of improving energy efficiency in the Commonwealth. As written, the bill will cause harm to moderate-income homeowners, and further hurt a housing market starving for inventory.

“Realtors® are for energy efficiency, but the mandatory nature of this bill won’t do what its supporters hope it will,” said 2018 MAR President Rita Coffey, general manager at CENTURY 21 Tullish & Clancy in Weymouth. “The key to increasing energy efficiency in Massachusetts is through incentives and not mandates. Programs like Mass Save that provide incentives is the right way to go.”

Massachusetts has distinguished itself as the most energy efficient state in the country every year since 2011, according to the State Energy Efficiency Scorecard, which is produced by the American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy. The state’s success can be linked to the success of the voluntary Mass Save program.

According to MAR housing data, the number for homes for sale in Massachusetts has been going down for 72 of the last 73 months. This lack of inventory has pushed median home prices to their highest level on record. A mandatory energy audit required prior to a home being listed for sale would further restrict inventory levels at a time when more homes are needed to meet demand.

“Massachusetts is starved for housing inventory. In fact, it’s so severe, that we’re seeing the lowest number of homes on the market since we’ve been tracking this data,” said Coffey. “This scarcity is increasing home prices to a point where many first-time homebuyers are being forced out of the market and deciding to look in other states to buy a home.”

Energy Score: Another facet of this bill that MAR opposes is the requirement that each home that is listed for sale receive an energy efficiency score. Realtors® work to protect their clients and counsel their buyer on the benefits of having an energy efficiency inspection of a home they intend to purchase. Buyers are then able to use that information as they see fit. However, the mandatory nature would unfairly penalize moderate-income homeowner who cannot afford to make upgrades to improve the home’s score.

“This energy efficiency score would really stick it to moderate-income homeowners with older homes who can’t afford upgrades,” said Coffey. “Not every 53-year-old home is the same and to put an energy efficiency rating on them won’t improve energy efficiency.”

About the Massachusetts Association of Realtors®: Organized in 1924, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors® is a professional trade organization with more than 24,000 members. The term Realtor® is registered as the exclusive designation of members of the National Association of Realtors® who subscribe to a strict code of ethics and enjoy continuing education programs.

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Net Neutrality is Over: What Now?

For years, the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) and a broad coalition of technology and real estate industry partners have urged the FCC to uphold the former rules under which Internet Service Providers (ISPs) operate and can do business. “Net neutrality” is the previous consensus position, meaning that internet service providers can’t speed up, slow down or block any websites or applications.

That consensus shifted sharply on December 14th, as the FCC released a plan to repeal provisions ensuring net neutrality and allow ISPs to begin deciding what type of content and sites their customers may access on their service.

Currently, the internet is fairly egalitarian; if you have a connection, a computer or mobile device, and a browser, you can go to whatever website you like. The agreement you’ve entered into with your ISP states that they can’t dictate where you decide to look for news, what recipe websites you’re allowed to access, or, more relevant to Realtors®, where you might look to find your next home. Right now you’re allowed to begin your search wherever you like, and follow it wherever it takes you. You’re just as likely to land on the website of a small local Realtor® office as on a major listing aggregation site like Realtor.com, Zillow or RedFin. You let your wish list, location and other criteria guide your search, and your browser takes you wherever they lead, regardless of the size of the company who’s got the listing.

The loss of net neutrality has the potential to change that experience in profound ways.

Have you ever watched a sports talk show and said to yourself, “These guys are idiots, I could do a way better job than they could!” Now, you may or may not be right about your sports-talk potential, but the way the internet is currently regulated, you have many opportunities to prove it. You could start a blog, a podcast, write analysis for a small sports site, post your thoughts on Twitter or Facebook, or get yourself a nice webcam and post them on YouTube, seated behind a desk wearing a tie, just like the pros.

If you’re good enough and your content is relevant, you can succeed. Countless people in myriad professions and specialties do it every day, and they do it on the strength of a neutral platform, where their thoughts and ideas are just as accessible (just click a link!) as those produced by major media companies with huge advertising budgets and institutional power.

If you think of the internet as if it were cable TV (something you’re likely to get from the exact same company, by the way) right now, you get every channel imaginable for the same rate. You decide what you see. But what if your internet options looked like this?

Image shows internet price packages after repeal of net neutrality
Image via Reddit

This is the future. And in that future, large companies who have the ability to pay will dominate the landscape online, as they do in most other media.  Small and large players in the real estate industry could be affected if internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon create fast and slow lanes of web traffic based on financial arrangements they’ve made with content providers. The mom-and-pop Realtor® office that has the perfect home listed for you (or your next client) might not be able to pay enough for you to see it. Your office’s ISP may decide the MLS vendor you use is not paying enough, and slow their traffic to a crawl. Or it may decide to make your competitor’s advertisements and website load much faster than yours, based on what they’re willing to pay. Under the new rules, there’s nothing stopping them.

Ninety-three percent of NAR members use the internet to conduct and promote business. NAR President Elizabeth Mendenhall said in a statement:

“Technology is an increasingly important part of the way our membership delivers its services, whether through streaming video, drone technology, or other applications. We remain concerned that a rollback of net-neutrality rules could lead to blocking, throttling, or discriminating against Internet traffic, or even ‘paid prioritization’ arrangements that put small mom-and-pop businesses at a disadvantage in the marketplace. We will continue working with the FCC to share these concerns and ensure a fair and open internet where everyone can succeed.”

It’s a new day on the internet. There is still time to ensure these changes are implemented fairly and responsibly. But a major barrier to those goals has fallen, and time will tell what the consequences are.

How to Protect Yourself from Ransomware

There was a widespread outbreak of ransomware attacks, based on a vulnerability in Windows that was released a couple months ago from NSA leaks. Ransomware typically infects a PC through a malicious website (less common) or via clicking an infected link in an email or an attachment (more common.) The infection usually encrypts the user’s files, and demands a ransom in electronic currency to recover them.

Here’s how you can protect yourself:

If you have a Windows machine, such as a personal laptop or home computer, please take a moment today to do a full round of Windows Updates and update any antivirus software you might be using. This should be a regular part of your routine. Try to turn on automatic updates and don’t delay them too often when they prompt you to install or restart – they’re important for exactly this reason.

Be careful opening email attachments, particularly if they appear to be from DropBox, DocuSign, or appear to be from a Realtor®, but contain vague instructions about a contract or financial transaction—the kind of email that looks like it might be something a Realtor sent you by accident or was intended for someone else. See example below.


In this example, the “payload” of infected code is in a link the PDF attachment. The text of the email itself has no malicious links and contains real information for an actual Realtor®. We called that member and she’s dealing with hundreds of these being delivered to her contacts and people she doesn’t know—myself included—but is at least aware of the issue and taking steps to handle it.

Unmask links in your emails to inspect them before clicking them or downloading attachments. If you hover over a link, you can see where it goes without clicking it. If the URL in the preview goes to an unfamiliar website or location (Particularly if the email you’re looking at purports to be from Dropbox or DocuSign but the domain in the URL is something totally different) Example below:

Remember that most of the effective, complex vulnerabilities that can attack even systems with good security like ours tend to rely on code being executed in other programs, like Adobe Acrobat. Many of the serious infection risks occur when a new vulnerability is discovered in how computers handle external files, like PDFs. You can mitigate a lot of risk simply by not downloading attachments from emails that appear suspicious. The whole purpose of these emails being vague and somewhat confusing is to get you to click on the attachment to see if it clarifies things.

Don’t fall for it. Just delete it and move on. If it’s legitimate or important, the sender will contact you again. If you’re not expecting it, it’s probably not something you want. This is a good thing to remember with emails you send, as well – don’t send members or other staff an email that’s just an attachment and no text, or something similar. Take a moment to write at least a one-sentence description of what the purpose of your email is, even if you just talked to the person about it. At the very least, it will help if they (or you) need to search for it later.

Here are a couple links that might be helpful:

Update your Windows systems now. Right now. – Washington Post Story

Microsoft Windows Update Instructions – via Microsoft

Microsoft Ransomware Information – via Microsoft

One additional note on ramsomware: You should always back up important files, but if you are attacked by ransomware and you have no other option, it’s worth noting that paying the ransom to decrypt the files and retrieve them usually does work. These schemes wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a real mechanism for you to recover the files, and the hackers don’t have any motivation to leave your files encrypted—they just want to get paid.

If you have no other option to retrieve your files and are considering paying a ransomware demand, please feel free to call us to discuss the matter and we can advise you. Paying the ransom does not usually expose you to any additional infection risk. Any system compromised this way should have Windows fully re-installed from scratch anyway, so in some cases paying up might be the lesser evil. We’re here to help, and if you have any questions on the subject, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Are you missing important emails?

man with laptop and email concept

One of the most important communication goals for MAR volunteer leaders and professional staff is ensuring that our communications reach you. We use a number of different platforms to send our members all the information needed to participate in MAR’s advocacy and information services. Meanwhile, we realize that spam and junk mail filtering are important. In fact, 80% of all global email volume is spam. Unfortunately, filters also can block critical information you need for business. So here are some simple steps to balance your need for critical business information versus spam filtering, and to help MAR keep critical business information flowing your way.

Whitelisting  

MAR emails typically come from either an MAR staff professional or one of our general mailboxes. MAR emails always originate from the marealtor.com domain.  So a first step is to “whitelist” our marealtor.com domain with your email provider.   Add us to your contacts list wherever possible.  There are several guides to whitelisting individual email addresses and domains for most major email providers and devices.

  1. Microsoft Outlook/Office
  2. Gmail
  3. Other providers

We’d ask that you add MAR staff professionals and the following addresses to your Contacts: info@marealtor.com, mar@marealtor.com, plus the addresses of Staff you regularly correspond with.

Email Providers 

Another important issue that we’re trying to address are the personal email providers which a relatively small percentage of our members use to do business. Personal email providers like AOL, Verizon, RoadRunner, Adelphia or newer free accounts tied to companies like Comcast and AT&T are certainly handy for personal messages. Their spam and junk-filtering systems are very aggressive, and it’s difficult to deliver email to those addresses if you’re using a large-volume commercial service like the ones MAR, the National Association, and even many of our local Associations use for important messages like legislative Calls for Action or e-newsletter industry updates. Most of our delivery failures come from a small number of members who use personal email providers for their business. Among members using their own domain or a company email address, failure rates are much lower.

There are lots of great options out there. The simplest is probably Gmail, which is free and extremely reliable. It takes only seconds to sign up for a free account, and you can easily set up forwarding from your old email addresses to the new inbox so you’ll never miss a thing.

Even better is to set up a branded email address – something customized and easy to remember. NAR offers an email package for its .realtor domains, at an additional cost of $60 per year.  You’ll need to claim set up your .realtor domain first, if you haven’t already.

GoDaddy, a popular web hosting company is currently offering a great price on its email and Office packages – you can get a professional domain, custom email, AND the full Office 365 suite with Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and more to use on up to 5 devices for $9.99 a month.

There are lots of other options out there, but the important thing is to consider the value email communications hold to your business. If you, like us, miss an important email because your spam filter got a little overenthusiastic, what could the consequences be? For us, it was a day lost reconfiguring the website. For you, it could be an important committee meeting, pictures of a loved one, or even a great offer on one of your listings. Isn’t it worth using the best possible tools at your disposal to manage your business communications, especially when they’re so affordable?