When you picture a burglar, who do you see? Let me guess, the black-clad clipart guy with the tiny mask and a bulging bag of loot. Or maybe the hilarious pair of dunces from the "Home Alone" movies, casing a wealthy suburban neighborhood to know exactly when families are gone for Christmas vacation.
The reality of burglary and burglars is very different than most of us think. For starters, according to FBI statistics, the majority of residential burglaries happen during the day, not at night under the cover of darkness. And according to interviews with convicted burglars, only a third of all break-ins are planned ahead of time.
Rather than being professional thieves, the typical profile of a burglar is a 17-year-old kid who is looking to quickly grab something valuable and scram, says Marcus Felson, a professor of criminal justice at Texas State University and a pioneering expert in the nature of criminal activities.
"Burglaries are fast, typically over within five minutes and often within one minute," says Felson. "A lot of the time the door isn't even locked. If they come in and rummage, they rummage quickly and get out of there."
By better understanding when, why and how residential burglaries happen, homeowners can come up with the most effective strategies for deterring them. Which brings us to the question of the day: do house or porch lights do anything to stop burglars?
Felson says that lights have their place in a home security strategy, but that lights alone won't prevent someone from breaking into your house. For example, motion-activated exterior lights in the front and rear of your house are an effective way to spook a burglar, Felson says, but only if the light is positioned correctly to illuminate the intruder's face. If it's pointed toward the neighbor's house, all they'll see is a blinding light, but not the burglar.
What about timed interior lights? Home automation systems have made it easier than ever to schedule and control your interior lights while you're away. With a product like Philips Hue, you can use your smartphone to program your living room, kitchen and bedroom lights to mimic what it would look like if you were home.
Again, while automated lighting may give the impression that someone is home, especially in the evening when lights can be seen from the street, thieves know to look for other much clearer signs that you're gone during the day. According to interviews with convicted burglars in Australia and the U.K. (as part of a study), opportunistic thieves look for uncollected mail, newspapers and packages left on the porch, and empty driveways and garages.
An Oregon TV news team which surveyed convicted burglars found that all of their respondents would knock on the front door before breaking in. Unless you have a nifty doorbell camera installed, those tricky interior lights won't help.