TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter March 2010

Return to Archive

What Burglars Don't Want You to KnowBurglar

If you're considering changing careers and becoming a criminal, don't get a gun and go stick up a convenience store. Chances are high you're going to be caught and sent away for a long time. A much better choice for a career criminal is home burglar. Less than 15% are *ever* arrested during their entire criminal careers. Six out of seven professional home burglars are still on the job year after year. That's amazing when you consider there are over eight thousand home burglaries in America every day... and bad news for us law-abiding homeowners. The next-worse thing than being the victim of a violent crime is having your home burglarized. Aside from the direct (and usually permanent) loss of belongings, victims are often haunted for years by the violation of their homes... and gripped by the fear that it could happen again.

Know your crooks. There are three classes of burglars: the professional (think Alexander Mundy from "It Takes a Thief" or Pierce Brosnan/Steve McQueen in "The Thomas Crown Affair"), the semi-pro, and the amateur-opportunist. Don't spend too much time worrying about the professional. He's probably after bigger stuff than you've got, and there isn't a lot you can do to stop him anyway. The real worry is the semi-pros and amateurs because there are a lot of them around, and they often blend into the scenery. A high percentage of "easy" home burglaries are committed by male teenagers who live close by. The semi-pro may scout a neighborhood for a week or more, while an amateur may spend only a few hours casing a residence. Either way, once he's made the decision to rob a particular house, he'll be in and out in just a few minutes.

How it's done. The most common home burglary modus operandi in my area goes like this: once a house has been targeted, the burglar will park his car around the block and walk over. He'll go right up and ring the front doorbell. If someone comes to the door, he'll pretend to be selling something door to door or have a story that he's looking for a different house. If there's no answer, he'll typically head around to the back of the house, seeking a way in without attracting too much attention. He'll first try to force the back door. Most burglars don't bother picking locks. They know they'll be able to quickly gain entry by cruder methods. If he can't get in through the back door, he'll try a window or possibly the garage door. While burglars would prefer to work in darkness, they do not want to confront anyone, and generally choose to operate during the day when the house is more likely to be unoccupied. They don't much care if your alarm goes off. They know that most neighbors won't pay attention and the police won't arrive for quite a while. The burglar is usually in and out within eight minutes or less. He'll go straight for the master bedroom, looking for jewelry, money, and drugs. If he finds a gun or laptop computer or something else that's relatively small and of high value, he'll grab that. He may take a quick sweep through other areas of the house, especially the living room, dining room, and den. He will never go down in the basement, up in the attic, or into any confined area for fear of being trapped there should the homeowner or police arrive. That's why he also prefers single story homes (two story homes often have the master bedroom on the second floor).

How you're targeted. Real estate agents talk about "curb appeal," how attractive and desirable a home looks from the street. Well, so do burglars. They usually make the decision about which house to rob by first cruising your neighborhood. Your challenge, therefore, is to make your house appear "hard" to a burglar, yet inviting to everyone else. There are some simple things you can do. For example, keeping your lawn well manicured; it implies you pay close attention to your home. An overgrown lawn suggests vacancy, and invites closer inspection of the home as a possible target. Corner houses aren't targeted as frequently as homes in the middle of the block; they're too visible. Houses located in cul-de-sacs are at higher risk due to less frequent police patrols and proximity to woods (good hiding places). Townhouses often have poorly secured sliding glass doors and small enclosed back yards, attractive elements for the burglar.

How to Stop It from Happening to You

I'm sure you've seen the burglar proofing tips published by your local police department or community association. They provide good information, but always make a crucial mistake. Here's why. I'm writing this article on an airplane waiting to take off, and the flight attendants just started their safety spiel. They have some very important information to relate... which could save your life in an emergency. So, how do they start? By showing you how a seat belt works! Uh, hello, we know that already. 90% of the plane's passengers tune out at this point and ignore the important stuff that follows – like how and where to place the straps on the life vest. Dumb. Unfortunately, burglar proofing instructions always start off the same way: put timers on lights, keep shrubs trimmed back from windows, install deadbolt locks, etc. Yeah, yeah, we know that already... But meanwhile there are many little-known yet highly effective strategies you can employ to reduce your chances of being the victim of a home burglary – and I'll start with those right now:

Instant dog kit. Burglars hate dogs (big or small, it doesn't matter). If you've already got a dog, great. Now get one of those beware of dog signs. Get one even if you don't have a dog. For added realism, put a dog bowl and chain out by the back door; that really works well. (However, those motion-sensitive electronic dog barking devices won't fool anyone.)

Get a real security camera. Not those fake ones they sell in catalogs. Criminals aren't fooled by the fakes (and real cameras don't have blinking red lights). If you don't want to spend the money on a full video system, see if you can buy a burned-out security camera or just mount a real one but don't hook it up (make sure the wiring looks real though).

Don't advertise. Burglars want different things these days than they used to. A few years ago, the prime targets were your home entertainment electronics. Now, thieves are mainly after cash, drugs (pharmaceutical and otherwise), laptop computers, guns, and jewelry. They want stuff that's small, valuable, and easy to sell. However, whenever you buy a big-ticket electronics item, you should take measures to hide the "evidence." Be discreet about carrying in the new flat screen. Pull into your garage first, if possible. Likewise, don't leave the big new box out by the curb; cut it up first. It's not so much that a burglar wants your home theater equipment. Rather, he thinks that if you can afford to buy one, you probably have lots of other nice things to steal.

Bad places to hide things:

  • Dresser or lingerie drawers

  • Night stands

  • Under the mattress

  • Medicine cabinets

  • Anywhere in the master bedroom, living room, or dining room

Good places to hide things:

  • Attic

  • Basement

  • Children's' bedrooms

  • Broom closet

  • Kitchen


You may want to get a decoy spray can safe or a hollow book safe. Both types are highly effective, although I have a slight preference for the book safe, feeling it's less likely to be thrown away by mistake.

Decoy box. A typical burglar will be in your house for less than eight minutes. He's not going to spend much time evaluating whether a piece of jewelry has a real diamond or a cubic zirconia in it. If you put out some decoys, he may scoop them up and leave without hunting for your real treasures. If you have a pretty jewelry box on the dresser, keep all your inexpensive pieces in there and put your valuable stuff in a plain box, or better, in a safe. Actually, you should have two safes: a real one and a decoy. The decoy should be semi-visible and the real one well hidden. A thief will assume the decoy is filled with goodies, but won't usually try to open it on site; he'll take it with him. If you secure the decoy safe to the floor, use some small screws. Resist the urge to place a "Nah-nah, fooled you!" note inside the safe. Instead load it up with some costume jewelry and maybe some worthless papers (you were wondering what to do with those Enron and Global Crossing stock certificates anyway).

Mark your stuff. You can buy an electric engraving pen for less than twenty dollars or borrow one free of charge from your local police department. Some authorities recommend engraving your Social Security Number on your possessions but I don't. The risk of identity theft is high enough already. Your driver's license number or phone number may be a better choice. Engraving your name or number on your valuables helps deter robbery in two ways: First, you discourage the thief since marked property is much more difficult to sell. Second, if a thief does steal your property, it is much easier to catch and prosecute him when he is discovered with goods is his possession that are easily identifiable as stolen. To protect smaller valuable items such as jewelry, silverware, etc., it is wise to take a photo of each item. It's also a smart idea to take your video camera and do a complete "walk-through" of your house. Narrate the tape as you make it, describing the objects you're filming. After you have marked, photographed, and videoed all your valuables, make a detailed list of these items and keep it in a safe place. Keep a copy in the office or some other offsite location. When new items are acquired, add them to your list. As other valuables are sold or discarded, cross them off the list.

Know who's looking around. Anytime you allow someone new to enter your home, you increase your risk of being robbed at a later date. Even a person who's been in only once or twice has a good feel for the layout of your home, the value of your possessions, and the type of security system you have. Be distrustful of repair people, deliverymen, or salespeople in your home, even if they seem "nice." They may not be burglars themselves, but sources of information for other criminals. Do not mention work schedules, vacation plans, etc. Be especially suspicious of telemarketers or door-to-door salespeople. They may appear polite by asking, "When would be a more convenient time to speak with you?" However, they're actually more interested in determining when you not going to be home. Do I need to remind you to never leave notes on your door saying when you'll be back? If you've got teenagers, don't let them have "open house" parties. You don't know who'll be casing your home.

Get a complete perimeter alarm. Just don't have a false sense of security from it. An alarm won't keep anyone out of your house, but it should alert you if there is a break-in. Of course, it also serves as a deterrent, and will often (but not always) scare off an amateur or "smash ‘n grab" opportunist. If you have a burglar alarm system in your home, don't keep it a secret. Make sure you have a metal sign on your lawn and alarm decals on your windows. Even if you don't have an alarm system, you should make it look like you do. Get some of those stick-on window break sensors, the lawn sign, and the window decals.

Don't be a "chicken little." Keep your alarm system well maintained to avoid false alarms. Likewise, make sure everybody in your house is very familiar with the alarm's operation, to minimize false alarms. If you have a lot of them, and your siren goes off every week, your neighbors won't even look out their windows (but they will curse your name). What you really want are "nosey neighbors." You want them to immediately call 911 if they suspect criminal activity at your house. Police detectives say an active tip about a crime in progress is one of the only ways they ever catch a house burglar. That's why you may want to consider joining or organizing a "neighborhood watch" program.

Upgrade your lighting. It's true that most home burglaries are committed during the day when houses are likely to be vacant. However, burglars are also constantly on the lookout for homes that appear vacant at night. All things being equal, they'd much rather operate under the cover of darkness. Outdoor security lighting that's on a timer or light sensor will bathe your home in a constant protective blanket of light. Most burglars won't spend any time investigating further. Motion-sensor controlled lighting is less expensive to operate but only effective once someone enters its zone. By that time though, the burglar may be sufficiently interested in your home to press on regardless. He may try to unscrew the bulb if the light is accessible. Disabling a motion light is less obvious than unscrewing a usually-on light.

Close your garage door. An open garage door is like a giant highway billboard that says, "Rob Me." Also, you should know that relying solely on the electric garage door opener for security is risky. Consider having a locksmith install a deadbolt on your garage door, or get a special padlock you can use when away for extended periods. Garage doors should have solid wood or solid core construction. Your garage door remote control should be of the "rolling code" variety. If your control is more than about 15 years old, it's probably not. "Code sniffers" are commonly available. With one, a thief can lie in wait, and then capture your code when you press the remote. Later, he can use his own remote to open your garage door, close it behind him, and go to work in complete privacy.

Secure your ladders and tools. Chain and padlock your ladders so they can't be used for a "second story job" at your house. Be sure to secure your tools, especially pry bars, big screwdrivers, hammers, and the like. You don't want them turned into burglar tools and used against you.

Maintain the lived-in look. You know about putting some interior lights on timers when you're away. The best timers have a random mode; it's much more realistic. A very effective strategy is to put your TV on a timer, with the volume turned up high. Radios are good too. Remember all the conventional wisdom about stopping the mail and newspaper, mowing the lawn, clearing snow, etc.. However, you still need a trusted person to come by your place frequently and look things over. Even if you've stopped your mail and paper, you're still at risk of a "door hanger" or advertising flyer being placed in your front door – advertising to one and all you're not there to remove it.

Holidays are prime-time for crooks. Be especially vigilant about home security during holidays. Burglars know when religious services are commonly held and also when homes are likely vacant for parties and dinners out.

Watch your garbage. If you're away for more than a few days, ask a trusted neighbor to put some of his garbage in your trash bins. While the majority of sanitation workers are honest, some have been known to provide "no trash for days" tip-off's to burglars. Even if you're not away on an extended trip, be vigilant about the signal your garbage can sends to thieves. In some towns, garbage cans must be brought out to the curb for morning pickup. Burglars cruising the neighborhood at 3:00 PM can easily spot who's not home during the day to bring the cans back up to the house.

Let the pros handle it. If you suspect you've been burglarized, don't "investigate" the crime scene by yourself. Let the police come over and check things out. That's what they're paid to do. Women especially shouldn't wander about the house if they're least bit suspicious. (You know in the movies, where the woman walks around nervously asking, "Is... is... there anybody here?" A police detective told me, incredulously, that frequently happens in real life.) If you see a door or window ajar, go to a neighbor's house or call 911 from your cell phone. While most home burglars are basically cowards and will take pains to avoid a confrontation, some are "armed and dangerous." In the event you encounter a crime in progress, attempt to flee. If you are blocked in, stay still and allow the burglar to leave quietly, with whatever's he's carrying. Do NOT attempt to detain him. That would be idiotic. Your stuff can be replaced. You can't. Your family can live without grandma's pearl necklace; they'd have a hard time getting along without you. Once the burglar leaves, call the police immediately. While you're waiting for them to arrive, don't touch anything or attempt to clean up the mess. You may destroy important evidence. Make sure your house number is easily visible from the street. It'll speed police response.

Lightning does strike twice. If you're unlucky enough to have been robbed once, you are at even higher risk in the future. Whatever attracted the thief the first time around: "curb appeal," inside info, isolation, etc., probably still exists after the crime. What's worse, once the burglar has robbed you, he knows the layout of your home. It's not uncommon for burglars to wait until you've replaced your things, and then rob you again.

Your Doors and Windows Need Special Attention

There are only two ways a burglar will enter your home: through your doors or through your windows. They aren't going to do anything exotic like cut through a wall or rappel down through a skylight. Burglars prefer to enter a house they way you do: through a door. Pros may be able to pick a standard lock quickly, but most thieves try to force their way in. That's why properly-installed deadbolt locks are essential. You've seen that credit card door-opening trick in the movies. If there's a bit of gap in the doorframe and no deadbolt, it actually works. Consult with a quality locksmith and have him/her install (or replace) a deadbolt with a 1-inch throw and a case-hardened bolt. The locksmith may try to sell you on a high-security cylinder (Medeco, Assa, and Mul-T-Lock are popular). Of course, these will be more expensive than a standard cylinder. There are 3 main advantages: pick-resistance (the least important), drill resistance (medium-important), and key control (very important). Key control means that the special keys cannot be duplicated on a common hardware-store key-making machine. Honest locksmiths will not duplicate the keys unless shown proper identification or authorization. Some keys cannot be duplicated at all and must be ordered specially from the factory. This is a pain to be sure, but worth it if you must leave a key for a maid or service worker from time to time.

It doesn't matter how much money you spend on the lock if it's installed improperly. You *must* have a reinforced strike with four 3-inch screws into the actual house framing (not just the door trim) at a minimum. If you have decorative side glass on the door frame, consider having a 1/4 inch thick flat steel bar imbedded in the door jamb, bolted to the top and bottom structural framing. This will cost several hundred dollars but is the only way to properly secure a door with a thin frame next to glass.

If you have decorative sidelight panels or a glass panel in the door itself, consider replacing the glass with shatter-resistant safety glass or Lexan. Any competent glazier can do this for you. Alternately, you can screw a cut piece of Lexan on the inside of the door, backing up the original glass. This may be the best choice if you can make it look aesthetic. If you have a dog door, be aware it may be compromising your home's security. While a full-grown burglar probably won't be able to fit through, a child can bribed to crawl through and unlock the door. And don't forget about specially trained monkeys. (Just checking if you're still paying attention.) Trained monkeys or not, be sure to lock the pet door when you're away from your house.

I'm sure you know that sliding glass doors are burglar favorites. Many people use the "broomstick trick" (a cut down broomstick fitted into the bottom track). It's better than nothing but the "coat hanger trick" can lift it out. Consider installing a Fortress Lock or Charley Bar instead. They provide excellent security.

After your doors, the next most vulnerable points are your home's ground-floor windows. The windows on the rear side are most commonly breached. Insect screens provide zero burglary protection; they are easily cut. However, "old fashioned" storm windows provide significant protection because they make a lot of noise when broken. When the locksmith is at your house upgrading your door locks and hardware, have him install proper window locks too. Many won't suggest them unless you ask.

The title of this article was a bit misleading. There's no way to totally "burglar-proof" your home. If a pro burglar wants in, he's going to get in. The best defensive strategy, therefore, combines techniques for making your home less of a target, and actually "hardening" it to make break-ins a lot more difficult for the amateurs and semi-pros. I realize some of this stuff is part of the conventional wisdom. You may be familiar with the strategies – but a little reminder never hurts – and taking action *now* could prevent a big headache (or worse) later.


Return to Archive

(c) Copyright 2002-2010 Victor Urbach
This article
may be reprinted with permission and attribution