In this article:
Selling your home is an exciting and frenzied process, but it's one that's full of steps that could potentially put you at risk of identity theft. Listing your home online, hosting an open house and communicating sensitive information to your real estate team can all expose your personal information.
But it's possible to protect your identity starting as soon as you've made the decision to sell your home. Options include everything from double-checking the legitimacy of wire transfer requests to securing valuables and important documents for the duration of the process. Follow these tips to limit your risk of identity theft and help you focus on the sale itself.
How Selling Your Home Could Put You at Risk of Identity Theft
Identity theft can take many forms: thieves stealing personal documents from your home during a home tour, cybercrime such as phishing or scams such as wire fraud. It's important to stay vigilant, especially in the following scenarios:
Sharing Photos of Your Home's Interior
Listing and marketing your home for sale, often with the help of a real estate agent, are key steps in reaching potential buyers. After staging your house, getting a professional photographer to take photos and posting on a Multiple Listing Service (MLS), your listing will likely show up on online marketplaces such as Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow. Additionally, you and your agent may opt to share the listing on social media to amplify its reach.
That means it's crucial to be sure that you're not inadvertently sharing private information in the photos, even if an item seems innocuous. Scammers could use that information to learn more about you, to plan a burglary or to target you for identity theft at other vulnerable steps in the sale process.
Hosting an Open House
Opening your home to strangers sounds risky, but it's often an important way to make contact with potential buyers. At an open house, especially if multiple visitors are looking around at the same time, a fraudster could steal electronics, find personal information like your Social Security number and birthdate or access your account and device passwords if they're lying around. Prescription medications are also targets of thieves and could be a way fraudsters learn more sensitive information about you.
Sending Personal Information Via Email
During a home sale, there's the possibility that you'll communicate via email with multiple parties, including your real estate agent, lawyers, buyers, title companies and more. In these interactions, you may share information such as your bank account details and personally identifying data. You may also receive sensitive correspondence in the mail, which can also be a target of fraudsters who grab important documents from your mailbox.
Sellers may pay certain closing costs at the end of a sale, including a real estate agent's commission and title insurance for the buyer. Depending on the deal you've made with the buyer, you may also pay for attorneys' fees, a home inspection, property taxes or other costs.
If you'll be making wire transfers to other parties, you may be vulnerable to scammers who send phishing emails or call you requesting the funds be transferred to a bogus account. If a fraudster has learned that you're in the process of selling your home via an online listing or open house, they may use this tactic later to target you for wire fraud during the hectic closing period.
Ways to Protect Your Identity Throughout the Sales Process
In both apparent and lesser-known ways, you can secure data and objects that could make you a target for identity theft. Consider taking these steps:
1. Hide or Remove Personal Items From Your Home
Before a photographer comes to your home to take photos for the online listing, store important documents, mail, bills, family photos, awards, business cards, jewelry and any item with your name or other personal details on it. Check to make sure particularly sensitive information like your phone number and Social Security number aren't visible anywhere in photos.
It's best to remove these items from view (or from your home entirely) for the duration of the selling process, since multiple people could end up spending time in your home with minimal supervision.
2. Make Your Open House Secure
In addition to depersonalizing your home, there are some extra precautions to take before bringing strangers into your space for an open house or home tour.
Since people will be spending time walking through each room (and opening closets, drawers and cabinets), store any items with personal information on them, even if they're in seemingly hidden places. That includes prescription medications in medicine cabinets and passwords that may be written on sticky notes or in notebooks near your computer. Lock away all electronic devices and collectibles. If you can't store away larger electronics such as desktop computers, password-protect them and make sure the password isn't visible.
3. Encourage Your Agent to Help
Your real estate agent should share your commitment to protecting your identity and sensitive personal information. Ask how they plan to ensure your privacy during the marketing of your home and during an open house.
For example, encourage them to take a few steps to protect your home and your information, including:
- Using a sign-in sheet to keep track of anyone who attends a home tour.
- Keeping an eye on all visitors to the open house as they look around.
- Properly securing the keys to your home if the agent is opening it up for tours on their own.
If a potential buyer stops by your house and asks to take a tour unattended by an agent, do not let them in. Ask them to get in touch with your real estate team so the agent can set up a tour and properly escort them through your home.
4. Use Safe Document Storage and Sharing Procedures
If you're communicating with an agent, lawyer, buyer or other party by email, make sure you're sharing information securely. Change your email password before and after the sale so that scammers—who may have accessed your email credentials during a data breach—don't have access to sensitive information in your inbox.
If you receive a request to wire money, even from a recipient you recognize, call the recipient to confirm it's legit. Encrypt or password-protect digital files, or submit hard copies in person. If paper documents will be stored onsite at an agent's or lawyer's office, ask how they'll be safely secured in the building. You can also request that any paperwork with your personal information be shredded after the sale is complete.
Protect Your Identity—and Your Credit
Your identity and personal information are closely tied to your credit. If you're planning to sell your house—or are already in the process of selling your house—sign up for credit monitoring by Experian. Keep tabs on your credit score and any changes that may need your attention, especially as you're busy with everything that needs to be done before the sale closes.