- Jeff Ostrowski Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Realtor Beverly Carter was murdered after a couple intent on kidnapping her lured the photogenic agent to an empty home.
If she had been able to run a quick background check on a mobile app designed by a Boca Raton company, she might have known to skip the deadly meeting.
Data firm Cogint Inc. (Nasdaq: COGT) in mid-October launched Forewarn, a tool that lets licensed real estate agents use mobile phone numbers to check criminal histories of clients.
The product already is winning attention from the real estate industry. On Tuesday, the Greater Hartford Association of Realtors said it would provide Forewarn to its 4,000 members for two years.
In an interview this week, Cogint executives said they’re negotiating with other Realtor associations, too.
“The goal is nothing less than getting this in every single agent’s hands in the United States,” said Cogint Chief Executive Derek Dubner.
The National Association of Realtors has 1.2 million members, and Cogint charges $20 a month for a subscription. So if 500,000 agents were to sign up for its service, the company would generate $10 million a month in revenue.
Realtors routinely flirt with danger. Agents are mostly women who spend their days showing empty houses to strangers.
Most times, nothing goes wrong. Sometimes, though Realtors become victims. In 2010, an Ohio agent was strangled by two men she thought wanted to see her listing. And in 2011, an Iowa agent was murdered during an open house.
The 2014 murder of Carter, an Arkansas real estate agent, spurred Realtors to examine their security practices.
Carter’s killers were a couple posing as out-of-town buyers interested in a house in a remote location. They “spoofed” their phone number, making their Arkansas number appear as an out-of-state phone.
If Carter could have run the phony number through Forewarn, said Cogint President James Reilly, “It wouldn’t have matched who they said they were.”
While the app wouldn’t have warned Carter that her life was in danger, it could have alerted her that the buyers weren’t who they claimed.
Cogint is pursuing a broader strategy of compiling data from court filings, deeds and other public records to compete with Accurint and TLO, two well-established providers of background checks and other information.
Its Forewarn app is available only to licensed real estate agents. By matching a phone number to the identity of the owner of that number, the tool provides a quick overview of a person’s history of criminal and civil entanglements, along with homes and vehicles registered in the person’s name.
Reilly notes that Realtors who use Forewarn should keep other safety policies in place, such as meeting new clients at the office for the first time, or not showing homes alone.
“This isn’t the end-all solution,” Reilly said. “We always just say it’s a yellow flag.”
Cogint, which has 110 employees in Boca Raton and 90 more workers in New York and Seattle, counts Miami billionaire Phillip Frost as its largest shareholder. He owns 29 percent of the company.