As a landlord, you may not necessarily describe your business as “tech-based” – this despite the fact that you’re surrounded with the type of technology on a daily basis that helps you not only do your job more effectively, but that also helps to build and strengthen the relationships that you’re forging with your tenants.
However, it’s important to remember that in the modern era, every business is essentially a technology business, thanks to the prominence that IT plays in the very infrastructure upon which your organization has been built.
Of course, this also means that you have to take the good with the bad. For every productivity solution you invest in, or for every centralized database you deploy that stores information in a way that makes it possible for you to work “smarter, not harder,” you also have to think about issues like cybersecurity at the exact same time.
According to one recent study, between 35,000 and 70,000 new strains of malware hit the Internet on a daily basis. In the vast majority of all situations, that malware is created with a single purpose: to gather sensitive information like bank statements, social security numbers, driver’s licenses and more.
When you also consider the fact that about 60% of all small businesses in particular close their doors permanently within just six months of a data breach or cyber-attack, you begin to get a better idea of just how serious this issue really is.
In no uncertain terms: just because you are technically a “small business” and you’re not a “high profile” organization like a bank or a similar type of institution does NOT mean that you won’t eventually attract the attention of the type of people who wish to do you harm. You cannot stop yourself from becoming a target of people like hackers in the modern era. Heck, one great idea would even be for hackers to pretend they’re interested in your vacancy so they can get your email address and start sending you scam emails to try to trick you into clicking on a suspicious link. Think about how easy that would be and at that point, they have your data. They can even use popular sites like Zillow, Craigslist, ForRentByOwner.com or FRBO.com to help with landlord sourcing.
You can, however, stop yourself from becoming a victim – provided that you take the steps today as a landlord that you need to protect your computer from unwanted eyes tomorrow.
Getting to that point isn’t necessarily difficult – but it will require you to keep a few key things in mind.
- The Best Defense is a Good Offense
Believe it or not, a recent study revealed that an estimated 95% of all cybersecurity breaches in the modern era still begin the exact same way: due to good, old-fashioned user error.
If you are a self-managing landlord or even an established property management company, one minute, you or your secretary – let’s call her Debbie – is typing away at her desk on a Monday morning, catching up on all that paperwork that piled up over the weekend. She’s a little flustered because she has so much to do and her mind is elsewhere. She gets an email that looks like it’s from you, asking her to transfer a significant sum of money into a perhaps semi-familiar bank account. She doesn’t think anything of it so she carries out the request only to soon realize that the email wasn’t from you. It was from a hacker who went to modest lengths to make it look like the message was from you, and now that money is gone – forever. Keep in mind that this isn’t something I’ve made up – this example is based on a true occurrence at another brokerage company I own, yet we caught it minutes before the wire was sent.
That’s literally how easy (and fast) these things can happen – and this is before you even begin to get into a topic like phishing, which was also the reported cause of about 32% of all data breaches in 2019.
Likewise, think about the treasure trove of information contained in just one application provided to you, perhaps on a regular basis – bank accounts, drivers’ licenses, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and detailed credit reports. In other words, everything someone needs to steal someone’s identity – just waiting to be opened by someone who knows where to look.
Even a modest scenario like that one is the perfect example of why cybersecurity awareness is so critical to your ongoing success and protection. If you don’t want Debbie to open up your PC to this type of scam for your rentals in Orange County, she and/or you need to know in advance what this type of scam actually looks like. She needs to be able to spot a phishing email from a real one. She needs to know what to do if one winds up in her inbox.
You need the tools – and the knowledge – to protect your confidential information stored in your PC throughout the day so that Debbie, in turn, can protect your business and your applicant’s private information.
This isn’t going to happen on its own, which is why, as a landlord and as a small business owner, you need to invest in thorough and ongoing cybersecurity awareness training for you and all of your employees. To protect yourself and your business, you need a training plan in place for all employees, and you need to have a security policy in place that outlines the very real consequences of ignoring these types of problems.
- Ongoing and Regular Maintenance
Another one of the best ways to protect your computers as a landlord is also, thankfully, one of the most straightforward: you simply need to make a proactive effort to keep all the software you’re using updated on a regular basis.
Look – nobody loves turning on the computer in the morning and getting hit with alerts about how this software is out of date and how a patch is available for something else. You’re in the zone and you want to get to work – nobody will necessarily blame you for hitting the “ignore” button and carrying on with your day.
But what you might not realize is that these program updates are more than just formalities and they offer a lot beyond new features that you may not actually use anyway. In most situations, patches are released specifically to address today’s security holes and other issues that could leave your sensitive information exposed.
This is especially true of your operating system, which you need to update as soon as you’re able to do so. If the manufacturer of that operating system has announced that they’re going to stop support for it – as was recently the case with Microsoft’s Windows 7 – you need to upgrade to something more modern that is still getting those patches.
Once a flaw is discovered in a program, it represents a potential way in which your applicants for your rentals in Orange County can be exposed. For every day you do nothing about it, you’re only increasing your risk and making it more likely that someone is going to take advantage of this “loophole” to steal sensitive information.
At that point, what you have to do is simple: don’t let them. Updating all of your software is exactly how you do it.
- The Right Tools for the Right Job
It’s equally important to make sure that you have the right tools in place to begin with – meaning that you should go beyond simple, free antivirus and malware protection in favor of something that is a bit better suited for today’s modern enterprise.
Nobody is saying that free antivirus and malware scanning tools won’t help – they absolutely will. It’s just that they’re only one small part of a much larger solution.
At a bare minimum, your business of renting property in Orange County will also need a strong firewall in place to help keep out the type of people who want to steal sensitive data to begin with. Think of a firewall as a barrier between your computer and the Internet. By default, they’re designed to prevent certain types of communication between your computers and the larger Internet – specifically, they stop threats from not only entering your system but also from spreading between multiple devices.
They can also come in enormously handy when it comes to preventing data from leaving your system, which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid.
In terms of antivirus software, the reason why you’ll probably want to upgrade to a solution that you’ll actually pay for is because a lot of the “free” options don’t do much in the way of proactive network scanning. Sure, they might find a virus on your computer after you tell it to look – but it’s rare that this will actually be how your business and its confidential information is exposed.
Instead, you need something that will look at “normal” network activity and automatically alert you when anything suspicious happens – thus cluing you into the fact that an intrusion attempt might be taking place so that you can stop it before it actually happens.
Is this another expense that you probably don’t want to have to deal with? Absolutely – but when you consider that another recent study revealed that the average cost of a data breach came in at an incredible $3.92 million last year, THAT is probably an expense you don’t want to have to deal with, too.
So, at that point, which hassle would you rather deal with – a modest subscription for a robust cybersecurity suite, or the enormous financial cost, potential liability (not to mention reputation damage) associated with a data breach?
(Hint: that first expense should look pretty good right about now).
- Passwords, Passwords, Passwords
Finally, one of the most effective ways to protect your data from unwanted eyes as a landlord is also one of the easiest: implement strong passwords across your business and implement them as soon as you’re able to do so.
According to another recent study, about 80% of all hacking-related breaches are still tied to compromised, weak and otherwise reused passwords. This is actually an improvement from the same study a few years prior, where… 81% of data breaches were the result of poor passwords.
To put it another way, people still aren’t learning this incredibly simple (yet, amazingly important) lesson: weak passwords are doing you far more harm than you realize.
Not only should you and your employees prioritize passwords that are long, with a combination of numbers, letters and special symbols, that are also case sensitive, but you should also change those passwords on a regular basis. Not only that, but you should never use the same password for two different accounts. That way, if one account is compromised, you can stop the bleeding right there as opposed to suddenly finding all your bank and investment accounts exposed.
Yes, passwords are a pain – but free tools like password managers, such as lastpass.com help a great deal. They can randomly generate strong passwords for you and store them indefinitely so that you don’t forget them.
Along the same lines, you should absolutely enable two-factor authentication on any account that lets you do so. This will require two forms of authentication instead of one (hence the name) – meaning that you’ll need a password and access to a protected device like a smartphone in order to gain access to an account. It’s very unlikely that someone from halfway around the world would have your password and your cell phone at the same time, which is why two-factor authentication is and will always be a good idea.
- In the End
Overall, it’s important for you to understand that your job as a landlord involves more than just offering people a place to live. From the moment someone’s relationship begins with your personal email or company, you begin collecting an incredible amount of sensitive information about them including bank records, drivers’ licenses and much, much more. The vast majority of this information will be stored electronically – which can be an incredible asset or an unfortunate liability depending on what you do next.
You cannot underestimate the seriousness of the scams, viruses, malware and other dangers lurking on the world wide web. Doing so does more than just abdicate your responsibility – it puts your tenants, your employees and the very business you’ve worked so hard to build at risk by opening the door to applicant identity theft, among other issues.
Cybersecurity is not something you “do once and forget about.” As a landlord or business owner of any type, it is in your best interest to always be proactive about the situation by following steps like those outlined above. No, it won’t be easy. No, it won’t be “free.” But this is absolutely one of those situations where the consequences of “getting it wrong” far outweigh the cost of “getting it right,” which is why you need to understand why and how to protect everything you’re doing from unwanted eyes.
Marcel Ford attended University of Southern California Business School’s Entrepreneur Program shortly thereafter obtained his California real estate license in 1992. In 2010, he obtained his California Broker’s license and founded Old Newport Realty. With growing client requests for property management, he started Genuine Property Management now serving nearly four hundred (and growing) properties in Orange County. Don’t be fooled by Marcel’s good looks and sense of humor as his hard work ethic is truly impressive, his experience is unparalleled, and his professionalism is undoubtedly world class. For more information please visit our website GenuineManaged.com and feel free to call 949-209-9494.