Who’s Got Your Number?

Laura Matiz’s client was insistent: For safety reasons, he didn’t want his entire Social Security and bank-account numbers printed on his co-op board application. When his request was denied, he caved, but he asked that the copies of his package be returned after the interview. “Clients are getting more concerned, and it’ll become more of an issue,” says the Bellmarc agent, who says she was happy to comply. Years before, another client had had fraudulent credit cards opened in her name after she’d sent documents to a brokerage’s general fax number.

A board application can be dangerous, and not just because it risks rejection. It’s a treasure trove for identity thieves, thanks to the data it collects: bank and investment records, employment history, that all-important Social Security number. (Rental applications are fodder, too, providing much of the same information.) “It’s amazing, when you think about it,” says veteran broker Janice Silver. “It’s every detail of your financial history.”

And yet few safeguards exist, says Avivah Litan, an identity-theft analyst. This despite the fact that “the housing industry has the most flagrant examples of abuse,” says Litan, who adds that real estate would be a “gold mine” to an identity thief. (The assistant who’s been charged with the murder of super-broker Linda Stein was apparently once arrested for identity theft.)

Though the state licensing application asks Realtors if they’ve committed a crime, they aren’t subjected to background checks—and neither are their employees. Nor has the government imposed data-privacy regulations, as it has with the banking and health industries. Michael Slattery of the Real Estate Board of New York says its code of ethics states that confidential information cannot be disclosed for personal interests, but doesn’t require brokers to protect client information. (When asked if they have policies about destroying sensitive paperwork, representatives from Halstead, Corcoran, Brown Harris Stevens, and Prudential Douglas Elliman declined to answer.)

Management companies are supposed to shred board packets, but they don’t always. And then there are the packet handlers, from those who collate copies to doormen charged with handing them out to board members. “I have a friend who sits on a board, and she says they throw them in the garbage!” says one prominent broker who’s had two buyers ask for extra precautions in recent months. (One opted to spell out his Social Security number in e-mail.) Until changes are made in the system, though, it’s up to consumers to watch their backs, and for brokers to help protect them. “It’s a huge responsibility,” admits Silver.

Who’s Got Your Number?