When we think of a burglar, we think of a stereotypical ski-masked man dressed head to toe in black, crouched down, creeping in the dead of night, carrying a professional break-in artist's ideal toolkit. As common a culprit, however, is the average-looking person dressed in average street clothes on your average workday, entering via an unlocked door or a brick-induced hole in a glass door.
There's no time of day in which your home is immune from burglaries; there are no standards of practice when it comes to how a burglar breaks in. Of the reported 2 million commercial and residential burglaries reported to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2009, most (61 percent) were forcible entry. 32.6 percent of burglars found the easy way in, and the balance represented foiled attempts [source: U.S. Department of Justice].
If your home is burgled, the financial losses you'll sustain are bad enough. The trauma and unease in its aftermath, however, is a bell that can't be un-rung, and many burglary victims never again feel safe in their own homes.
The best way to handle burglars is to pre-empt their plans with proven preventive measures. Burglars look for, and sometimes create, specific characteristics and situations when choosing where and how to break in. In the sections to come, we will look at what stamps a bull's eye on your home, methods used for break-ins and 21st century tools that burglars use for finding their next victims.
Burglars aren't going to bother with targets they don't think will allow them to get in and out undetected, loot-rich. Ideal targets are homes with indications no one will return soon. A plastic-wrapped phone book left all day on a driveway, a note left on a front door for an afternoon package delivery -- these are examples of the types of things burglars look for.
Signs of life are likely to put off would-be thieves. They can be fooled by strategic lighting and loud broadcasts (radios consume less energy than TVs, and talk shows sound like conversations in the home). At night, lights and a radio or TV on timers keep homes looking occupied into the wee hours, deterring burglars and keeping families safer long after bedtime.
Bold burglars peer through windows hoping to spy silver services, plasma TVs and baseball card collections. Best bets: Move valuables out of sight, and keep stashes safe by closing window coverings while away.
To keep a house safe while on vacation:
- Place lights on timers. Lights burning 24/7 scream, "Empty house!"
- Ask neighbors or friends to perform daily checks and collect newspapers and mail.
- Given last names, anyone can find most phone numbers. Names on mailboxes and un-retrieved packages encourage possible thieves to park outside, dial the number and see if someone picks up. Any time the house will be empty (vacations, workdays), best use call forwarding so someone always answers.
Most burglars aren't looking for trouble. The typical burglar avoids confrontation, has scant interest in an arrest and fears physical harm. Homeowners can use these concerns to their advantage, using lighting, alarms and dogs to discourage thieves from breaking in.
After dark, the best first defense for single-family homes is lighting, and lots of it. While interior lighting implies people are home, blazing exterior lights discourage a closer look. Undeterred daredevils may dash toward sides or back doors obscured from view. Those hidden areas, characteristic of houses at ends of cul-de-sacs, are best secured with bright lights and extra security measures on doors and windows. Motion-sensor lights save energy costs and deliver effective, flee-inspiring startles to jumpy criminals.
Next, imply a threat. Lawns and window signs advertising alarm systems deter many break-in attempts. Should burglars ignore warnings, the resulting sirens will prompt quick and possibly empty-handed exits.
The third line of defense (and one of the best) is the barking dog. Dogs chained outside in a fenced yards offer little threat. Burglars' encounters with unanticipated indoor canines, however, add factors out of burglars' control. No time or energy for pets? Many homeowners swear by their fake four-legged friends. Imagine a motion sensor triggering a bright light accompanied by the loud barking of up to five angry dogs.
Ever wonder how burglars actually enter homes? Next, we look at the number-one point of entry.
Warm spring days and crisp fall air make open windows irresistible -- especially to burglars. Thieves think nothing of walking the circumference of your home, trying each door, window and cellar opening until one relents to prying hands. Of course, first-floor windows and doors are more susceptible, but climbable trees and tables used as makeshift ladders place second-floor windows in as much risk.
Even when home, families should ensure their doors and windows are closed and locked; unattended or dark parts of the occupied homes are vulnerable. Consider bustling dining rooms and kitchens during dinners, when second floors can become targets for quiet burglars. Or consider the dark second-story bedroom where someone is sleeping near a wide-open window.
More about easy entries:
- Knob locks are easily jimmied using credit cards; deadbolt locks aren't. All doors need deadbolts.
- A word about hiding spare keys: don't. Burglars know to examine flower pots, ledges and bushes. Best to stash spare keys is in the hands of neighbors.
- Heavy rods in tracks prevent opening of sliding glass doors fully. Other professionally installed mechanisms prevent tampering with screws that secure doors and frames.
- Burglars break windows, so keep yards free of bricks and heavy rocks.
- Security companies can help with kick-resistant doors, window mechanisms that limit openings and break-resistant glass.
- Check access when workers leave. Even with an alarm, workers may open doors or windows from the inside in preparation for a later break-in.
Even with the brightest of lights, full-grown shrubbery and thick trees near houses conceal stealthy burglars. Tall, dense greenery near home allows burglars to remain hidden for as long as it takes to focus on opening windows or doors despite, or perhaps because of, the sense of security offered by the lights.
Such dense flora also provides burglars with secret places to wait. If burglars identify regular family departure times, they can take cover in the greenery and wait as the sound of the car engine fades in the distance, and then begin their nefarious work.
It's best to keep shrubs trimmed no higher than the bottom of window sills. This way, burglars have less room to hide, and will seek other, less visible, opportunities.
Burglars who prefer to plan their heists in advance are particularly attentive to seasons and occasions. Just before Christmas, for example, burglars love to look in, and then break in, large picture windows displaying dozens of presents underneath sparkly trees. On December 25th or 26th, burglars scout curbs, where empty boxes inventory potential loot -- large-screen TVs, expensive game systems, packages from high-end department stores and fishing gear. To take your home out of the running, leave the tree, but move presents from window views. Haul those empties to a public trash receptacle.
Summer vacations get burglars giddy, too. Families who take precautions to make their homes look lived-in should enjoy worry-free vacations.
Other events fraught with dangers from burglary include:
- Homes for sale -- Lock boxes hung on doors indicate houses are likely empty. With the right tools, burglars can break in quickly. Homeowners preferring to skirt this risk may work with realtors to either forego lock boxes or hang them in discrete locations. During open houses, visitors should not be free to roam, and after the event is over, realtors and homeowners need to check that doors and windows remain secure.
- Funerals and weddings -- Large family gatherings provide additional opportunities for burglars to know when homes will be unoccupied, usually for hours at a time. Best bet: Ask neighbors to house sit, with their cars parked in the driveway, to ensure it appears someone is home.
Determined burglars may use ruses to gain entry into homes that promise of big pay-outs. They may be setting up to steal immediately or to scout the premises for later by pretending to be a utility employee, the cable installer or even a police officer. Homeowners should ask for identification, and then call the company or agency to verify that the visit is official. (Use the number listed on your bill; don't trust a number the visitor provides. Their cousin could be the one answering the phone.)
A common ruse is posing as delivery or moving companies. This is highly effective, since most neighbors will not question a large van in the driveway with uniformed workers carrying contents from the house. Alert stay-at-home neighbors that you'll never have a van at your home unless you've informed them first. The neighbor who spots such a van can call you or the police right away.
Astute burglars look for surveillance devices. These thieves may feel ever-so-clever when spotting, then disabling, your above-door camera before it enables identification.
Lack of sophistication can come back to haunt cocky burglars who assume surveillance is like the days of yore: Recorded images on film are viewed later in some operation control room. Not so, and surveillance is one technology that gives home owners an advantage.
New Internet-enabled webcams provide not only recording of activities, but real-time monitoring. And they do so using small, easily-hidden devices, which means four, five or six webcams can be positioned to give different views of the same area. Dummy cameras disabled by burglars have no bearing on the live webcams still humming away. Internet-based surveillance gives owners an immediate view of what is happening outside and inside their homes. Compared to alarm systems, webcams are the next-best thing to catching a burglar red-handed. Help is a quick 911 call away.
The police aren't the only ones using stake-outs. Although many burglars are opportunistic and simply look for the nearest empty home that holds promise of undetected entry and high return, others do their homework, investing hours staking out neighborhoods or houses. They note how many people live in each house, when people come and go, what cars are usually in the driveways and typical traffic patterns. These careful planners aim to identify just the right house for just the right time.
Observant neighborhoods and unified neighborhood watch teams should take note of strange cars with unknown passengers that keep returning to the area. Call police; they should assess the situation.
Another way burglars come prepared is by bringing their tour de force of the trade: the bump key. Little known to those outside the locksmith and burglary trades, the bump key is a master key normally used by locksmiths to help those who have locked themselves out of their own premises. Some say they open up to 90 percent of traditional locks [source: Hundley].
The bump key is a bigger threat today than ever. Internet videos, intended to teach locksmiths, teach anyone how to make bump keys. Worse yet: Burglars can purchase bump keys on the Web.
The good news is that homeowners can work with locksmiths to install locks that can't be picked using standard bump keys, but can still be opened by a trained locksmith. Electronic keypad locks, too, seem to be favorites among those trying to evade bump-key bandits.
Part of a career in crime is staying a step ahead of those trying to catch them. Just when the authorities catch on to one new trick, criminals move on to the next. Message boards on the Internet bring together like-minded people to communicate via postings; they've become peer education groups for many professions, burglary included, where they may advance their knowledge together.
On these forums, real and would-be burglars debate the best ways to break into a house -- how to quietly break a window, why carding (using a credit card to release a lock) is still the best method and why some still prefer the kick-in-the-door approach. Even retired breaking-and-entering pros chime in with stories of their greatest successes. Inventive ways of getting people to open the door are discussed, too, leading burglars toward the more serious and dangerous crime of robbery. Posing as the host of a TV prank show or ringing a doorbell while holding a large check are likely to lure someone out of the house.
The lesson: Opening doors to strangers is generally a bad idea.
It's not possible for most homeowners to keep up with the ways burglars target and break into homes. It is possible, however, to identify a trusted security expert who is known to stay up-to-date on the latest burglary methods. The homeowner can invite the expert to inspect the property once a year to suggest where vulnerabilities may be further secured.
Web 2.0 is changing our world and, sadly, assisting burglars too. Here are some of the ways burglars exploit new technologies:
Burglars look for over-sharing online. On Facebook, for example, a teen may post about a family vacation -- where they're going, when and for how long. A father may boast about taking the brood to the movies: "We'll let you know how we liked it!" A single working person may complain via Twitter about a long line to buy hot concert tickets.
These people have just invited burglars into their homes. Online profiles often include last names and location information, such as the place a person goes to school or works. Posting a relationship status lets thieves know how many people are likely to live in the home. For a burglar willing to do his or her homework, social media can yield a treasure trove of information about when and how long people are going to be away.
Geolocation may be the ultimate burglar research tool. These services provide fun ways to meet people and play treasure hunt-type games. The ability to tell exactly where the user is at any given moment is a dream for burglars, who can enter homes while monitoring the owner's location, and wrapping up the job when the service signals their return.
For more on crime and related topics, steal a glance at the links on the next page.
Do porch lights or house lights stop a burglary? HowStuffWorks looks at whether outside lights are a good burglary deterrent.
More Great Links
- Burglary Prevention Council. (Nov. 22, 2011) http://www.burglaryprevention.org/
- Camber, Rebecca. "Facebook and Twitter users face pricier insurance as burglars 'shop' for victims' personal details on networking sites." Daily Mail's Mail Online. Aug. 27, 2009. (Nov. 22. 2011) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1209338/Internet-shopping-burglars-Facebook-Twitter-users-face-pricier-insurance.html
- Flam's Lock & Key. "Bump Key - Questions and Answers." (Nov. 24, 2011) http://www.flamslockandkey.com/bump-key-questions-and-answers.htm
- Fullbright, Lori. "Lock Bumping Helps Criminals Break In." NewsOn6.com. April 4, 2009. (Nov. 24, 2011) http://www.newson6.com/global/story.asp?s=10240652
- Huma Qureshi, Huma. "To beat break-ins, ask a burglar." The Guardian. April 15, 2007. (Nov. 22, 2011) http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2007/apr/15/homeimprovements.observercashsection
- Hundley, Wendy. "'Bump key' tool all burglars need to stroll in." The Dallas Morning News. The Denton Record-Chronicle. Oct. 5, 2007. (Nov. 24, 2011) http://www.dentonrc.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/100507dnmetbumpkey.3569b9d.html
- Kraeutler, Tom. "Protect Your Home From Break-Ins During the Holidays." AOL. May 23, 2007. (Nov. 22, 2011) http://realestate.aol.com/blog/2007/05/23/protect-your-home-from-break-ins-during-the-holidays
- McCarthy, Caroline. "Alleged 'Facebook' burglars busted in US." ZDNet. Sept. 13. 2010. (Nov. 22, 2011) http://www.zdnetasia.com/alleged-facebook-burglars-busted-in-us-62202849.htm
- Portland, Ore., Police Department. "Keeping Your Home Safe From Burglars." May 27, 2009. (Nov. 22, 2011) http://www.portlandonline.com/police/index.cfm?a=247171&c=50412
- The Smoking Gun. "Burglary Live On the Internet." April 9, 2009. (Nov. 22, 2011) http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/crime/burglary-live-internet
- State Farm Insurance. "Protect yourself against home burglary." Feb. 15, 2011. (Nov. 22, 2011) http://learningcenter.statefarm.com/residence/safety-1/protect-yourself-against-home-burglary/
- U.S. Department of Justice. "Crime in the United States 2009 -- Property Crime." September 2010. (Nov. 22, 2011) http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/offenses/property_crime/index.html
- U.S. Department of Justice. "Crime in the United States 2009 -- Burglary." September 2010. (Nov. 22, 2011) http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/offenses/property_crime/burglary.html