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Manatee, Sarasota real estate agents take action after St. Pete crimes

BRADENTON -- Local real estate agents who sell homes in Manatee County are rethinking on-the-job safety following the robbery and kidnapping at gunpoint of two agents last week in St. Petersburg.

Police have arrested a 58-year-old man on charges he kidnapped one real estate agent while she was showing him a St. Petersburg home. He unsuccessfully demanded $50,000 in ransom from her husband.

The suspect was also charged with robbing another female agent during a separate showing.

The incidents were a reality check for the Realtor Association of Sarasota and Manatee, which immediately warned its members via email blast to be aware of the suspect, who was still at large at the time. Stafford Starcher, association president and a ReMax Alliance real estate agent, said the crimes occur as the organization is writing up new guidelines to help its members stay safe at showings and open houses.

"We're telling them if your intuition doesn't feel right, be watching the situation," he said.

There have been no recent real estate agent-related crimes in Manatee County, according to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office. The only known crime against aqn agent in the county occurred in February 1985, when a female agent was strangled while showing a home in Sarasota.

A dearth of crime doesn't mean real estate agents are taking safety for granted. Thanks in part to association trainings that features local law enforcement, agents say they are taking precautions. Top safety tips include meeting clients for the first time in the office in the presence of others and travelling to showings in separate vehicles.

Beth Barnett, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty in Lakewood Ranch, said she long ago learned not to meet a stranger at a marketed property.

Vetting a new client often involves getting a copy of a driver's license, as well as mortgage and information qualifications.

Not everyone follows these guidelines.

"I know a lot of hungry agents who are thrilled to get a phone call and then will drive right up and meet anybody at any place," Barnett said. "I will not meet someone at a vacant property."

The St. Petersburg robberies reminded Barnett her job has the potential to be dangerous. She is particularly careful at open houses because most people attending them have not been vetted at the office.

"I always park my car on the street and not the driveway so I can leave the premises fast if I have to, and I leave my purse and keys in the trunk and take my phone with me at all times," Barnett said.

Stacy Tocci, a real estate agent with the Lakewood Ranch office of Michael Saunders & Co., said while she has not felt threatened during a showing, she takes precautions every day. She does about 30 showings a week so she always makes sure her office knows where she is and who she is with.

She's even gone so far as to have her sons sit with her at an open house. Safety, she said, is always a priority.

"When we get comfortable, we get complacent," Tocci said. "So we must always stay vigilant."

Another strategy some agents use is the buddy system. John Buice, a Keller Williams real estate agent in Lakewood Ranch, will often accompany a female co-worker if a client calls asking for a first-time meeting at a selling property.

"It's the common sense thing to do," Buice said.

The Realtors Association has done safety training for years. Stafford said the organization will continue to do the trainings in the hope none of its members are victims of crime while on the job.

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