Sellers Beware: Tips for Protecting Your Home in a Virtual World


During the COVID-19 pandemic, real estate agents could no longer depend on open houses to market their listings and instead had to rely on technology to fill the gap. Many leveraged traditional photos, while innovative agents began to explore virtual online tours. However, what started as a simple solution for dealing with pandemic restrictions has proven to be a beneficial way to effectively market a home. Real estate agents and sellers have started to rely on 3D tours to expedite the marketing process and identify the most probable buyer. Unfortunately, as this technology has grown in popularity, new problems have emerged.

3D tours leverage photos and videos to market a property. They offer viewers an opportunity to walk through the home without ever actually visiting it. However, these photos and videos occasionally reveal too much information and can pose a risk to the homeowner.

Personal Information Revealed in 3D Home Tours

The BBC recently reported on how a real estate agent’s use of 3D tour technology can expose clients’ personal data.

A home in Devon, England, was listed in October 2020, and a 3D tour of the property was available via the platform Rightmove. According to the investigation, “Financial paperwork in the study could be read by zooming in on the image.” The photos “included a shares dividend cheque, an insurance policy document, and an invoice for a stairlift.”

Additionally, “Other identifiable data about the homeowners in the property included the names of their pets on a photograph (pet names are commonly used as passwords), clues about their political views based on their choices of reading material, and their health – an asthma inhaler was visible in one of the bedrooms.”

The video was discovered by Carole Theriault, co-host of the Smashing Security podcast. She reported, “There [was] way too much information on show for anybody watching the 3D virtual tour to see … It [was] a treasure trove of private data – a veritable goldmine for identity thieves, phishers, you name it.”

This, unfortunately, is not a unique incident. As more agents rely on 3D technology for virtual tours, they risk exposing their clients’ personal information. According to a report by Inman, posted in September 2021, a 3D tour of a beach home listed in Venice, Italy, revealed that it belonged to Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer – costars in the TV series True Blood. The article stated, “The various memorabilia on the wall offer[ed] a surprisingly personal, and very rare, look into the lives of two famous homeowners. Thanks to the 3D home tour, it [was] possible to read handwritten notes about how Moyer is a ‘very kind person’ and how True Blood was a ‘real pleasure’ to work on.”

Higher Risks of Robbery

Not only can 3D tours pose a risk by revealing too much data, but they can allow burglars to scope out new properties.

In 2008 and 2009, a group of teenagers identified as the “Bling Ring” took Los Angeles, California, by storm when they burglarized the homes of multiple A-list celebrities, including Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton. Within a year, the group had confiscated roughly $3 million in cash and belongings. To identify potential theft opportunities, the group monitored the celebrities’ movements via their social media posts. They also took advantage of posts within the homes to determine where to target, said Robert Siciliano, co-founder of the security firm Protect Now and an Inman contributor. He drew a comparison between the Bling Ring case and today’s real estate imagery, saying that criminals could capitalize on 3D and 360 tours to identify their next target.

“It’s intelligence that a potential bad guy could use to seek out more information on you or to find out whether you’re at home or away,” Siciliano said. “Everything we put out there is additional intelligence someone could use against us.”

Three Tips for Preparing Your Home for Marketing

These stories reveal how 3D tours can pose a real threat to homeowners. Anyone interested in selling their property in today’s marketplace should take the necessary steps to ensure their personal safety and the security of their home. Here are three tips to prepare your home for market and help you navigate this complex new virtual environment.

#1 – Prepare the Home for Photos

Just like when you are hosting an open house, you want to hide all sensitive information before allowing a photographer into your home. Treat your home as an investment property and hide all materials that could reveal who you are.

Remove all personal items such as photographs, awards, and anything else that can reveal your personal identity. Safely secure all documents, including anything with your full name, signature, social security number, bank account details, etc.

#2 –  Utilize Virtual Staging

In some cases, a home can have too much to hide. For example, decluttering and removing all children’s material may be too much in homes with children. Or, your home may have more permanent security features, such as cameras, that you do not want to draw attention to.

In these instances, you should work with a firm that can leverage virtual staging to market your home. Virtual staging refers to replacing a room’s furnishings with new, purposeful decor and accessories. For example, you could replace the kid’s room with a sitting room. Not only does this allow the buyer to view the home in a more professional manner, but it also hides your personal data and security features that could put the home at risk.

#3 – Work with a Real Estate Agent Who Understands Staging

Most homeowners rely on the experience and expertise of their real estate agent when selling a home. However, since 3D tours are relatively new, real estate agents are still learning how to adapt and are not always aware of the risks posed within a home.

In the case of the Devon home, Rightmove’s owner Philip Fowler told the BBC that the homeowners were advised to put away sensitive material, and they had approved the use of the tour video the company had created. However, the firm did not conduct its own due diligence to ensure the tour respected its client’s privacy.

Staying Safe in a Digital World

As digital platforms become the norm, homeowners need to tune into how this changing environment impacts the home-selling process. They need to take the necessary steps to ensure their own safety and identify a team of real estate professionals who can assist them with the same goal in mind.

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