Homebuyer beware of identity theft
Most consumers are comfortable with their security when banking or shopping online, but house hunting should take your online security to another level.
With 90 percent of buyers taking to the Internet to search for homes last year, online security experts warn homebuyers that cybercriminals are ready and waiting to take advantage.
"People who are looking for a home have money and criminals are out there watching," says Dmitry Bestuzhev, head of the global research and analysis team of Kaspersky Lab, an antivirus and security software company in Quito, Ecuador. "It's like walking around a minefield. Buyers need to take steps to protect their information from identity theft and their computer from viruses."
Buyers are at risk when searching for homes online because spammers can set up fake websites to capture personal information. The sites are designed to look like legitimate bank or property listing websites and can unwittingly capture your personal financial information and infect your computer with viruses.
Searching homes on reputable, well-known websites like Realtor.com, Zillow.com and Trulia.com can be a safe place to start, followed by websites recommended by your Realtor.
"People put a lot of trust into the web but the reality is there's a bad guy around every corner," says Robert Siciliano, a personal security and identity theft expert in Boston.
7 security tips for homebuyers
No. 1: Update your security software. "You put yourself at extreme risk if you don't update your security software," says Linda Criddle, president of LookBothWays, an internet safety and security consulting firm in Seattle.
"If you go online with a brand-new computer that doesn't have any security software on it, it takes less than four minutes to have it riddled with malware," she says. "Everything on that computer is immediately compromised."
Siciliano says homebuyers need an updated suite of anti-virus, anti-spyware and anti-phishing software and a firewall on every Internet-connected device, especially if you're looking at any financial information.
Bestuzhev says installing the latest software is essential because cybercriminals constantly update their methods.
No. 2: Update browser and operating system. Since hackers exploit vulnerabilities in outdated browsers (e.g. Firefox or Internet Explorer) or operating systems (e.g. Microsoft Windows or Apple's iOS), Siciliano advises homebuyers to switch to the latest versions since they're designed to combat the latest viruses.
"It's just like your body, you need to have a strong immune system to be resistant to viruses," he says.
No. 3: Use a secure connection. Criddle says you should never look at financially sensitive information on a public WiFi connection. Never enter information on a site unless it has an "https" address -- rather than an "http" -- which indicates a secure connection.
"Your mobile network is safe," says Criddle, "but some people decide to use public WiFi instead to avoid exceeding their data plan. It's better to pay a data fee then to experience identity theft."
From a security standpoint, you're better off using your smart phone than a laptop or tablet, she says.
No. 4: Check for legitimacy. Bestuzhev says proper security software includes a URL advisor that flags malicious links.
Criddle advises buyers to only use mortgage calculators from legitimate, well-known websites.
She recommends installing McAfee "SiteAdvisor" software which visually warns you when you're about to enter a malicious site.
No. 5: Pick up the phone. Bestuzhev says it's best not to send sensitive information by email. He recommends calling your lender to provide sensitive information, such as your Social Security number.
No. 6: Search for reviews and scams. "Once you know a website isn't malicious, take the time to see if it's reputable," says Criddle. "Type the name of the site into your search field followed by 'review' and 'scam' to see if you're about to exchange information with a legitimate site."
Criddle says you should follow these rules for both real estate listing and mortgage sites.
"Once you have a reputable company to work with, you can sign up for email alerts for properties and feel more comfortable clicking on links," she says.
No. 7: Get a credit freeze. According to personal finance expert Clark Howard, credit freezes are one of the most effective tools against identity theft.
Until you're ready to apply for a mortgage, you can freeze your credit which stops any new credit from being opened.
"Even if someone gets your information such as your bank account number or your Social Security number they won't be able to open any new credit with it," says Siciliano. "You'll need to thaw it or unfreeze it when you apply for a mortgage, but then you can relock it once your lender has reviewed your credit."
Online security is always important. Don't lose out on a purchase because you've become a victim of a scam.
Michele Lerner, author of "HOMEBUYING: Tough Times, First Time, Any Time", has been writing about personal finance and real estate for more than two decades for a variety of publications and websites including The Washington Post, The Motley Fool, Investopedia, Insurance.com, HSH.com, SavingsAccount.com, National Real Estate Investor magazine, The Washington Times, Urban Land magazine, NAREIT's REIT magazine and numerous Realtor associations.