It’s one of life’s worst moments: discovering that your home has been broken into. But a violated home has more than just a financial impact on its residents.
“It affects their lives,” Tacoma Police Detective Thomas Williams said of the victims he meets. Adults no longer feel safe, children become frightened by every noise.
“Your heart starts beating pretty fast when you realize this is not a work of nature,” Tacoma resident Mark Redal said. He came in his front door last March to find his possessions strewn about. “The first thought that occurred to me was we had an earthquake.” Then he noticed his back door and its jam lying across the room. “Our house was totally ransacked.”
While making your home burglar-proof is a near impossibility you can make your home a less desirable target. Burglars are creatures of opportunity and will move on to easier pickings when spooked or confronted with roadblocks.
“They are going to go for the easy mark,” Williams said.
You can help take your home off a burglar’s to-do list by understanding how they think.
“A burglar’s enemy is time, light and noise,” said Amy Stull, the community programs coordinator for the Olympia Police Department. Burglars want to get in quickly, not be seen and not be heard.
“I think of crime prevention as layers of security,” Stull said. “I think a lot of people would benefit from taking a trip around their house and thinking ‘If I were a burglar where would I get in?’”
Williams said the three most common forms of entry TPD sees are kicked-in/forced open doors, unlocked windows/doors and smashed windows – usually done to open a door lock. There were 2,654 incidents (and 213 attempts) of breaking and entering in Tacoma in 2010, Williams said (data for 2011 is not complete). The figures represent a 0.5 percent increase from 2009.
In Olympia, two-thirds of all residential burglaries in late 2011 showed no signs of forced entry, said Darin Reedy, crime analyst for Olympia Police Department. Often, burglars in Olympia will case a house by knocking on the front door to check if residents are home, he said. If the resident is home, “(The burglars) have a front story: ‘I was looking for so and so; I’m looking for my lost dog’ but it’s concocted.”
Taking preventive measures begins with common sense, said Kelly Crouch, Crime Free Programs coordinator for the City of Tacoma. For instance, don’t leave the empty box your new flat screen TV came in sitting next to the recycle container. And don’t leave tools and equipment laying about the yard when not using them. It lets thieves know you have more inside.
Williams said burglars will often use the homeowner’s tools to break into a residence. That was the case in Redal’s burglary where the thieves used a shovel they obtained from his shed to force open his back door. He and wife Diane lost jewelry, a big screen TV and credit cards.
Crouch offers a free home security assessment to Tacoma residents (Olympia is planning a similar program). Crouch walks residents through their homes and discusses landscaping, locks and lighting among other topics. And, “We walk through the neighborhood to look at vantage points,” she said. Her ultimate goal is to help residents harden their home against burglaries.
“I always tell them what they are doing well.”
If burglary still isn’t a concern for you, think of your neighbors. Once yours or a neighbor’s home is burglarized it puts the whole neighborhood at risk for several weeks afterwards, Williams said.
“This can be explained by what criminology researchers call Near-Repeat Victimization – a pattern not just locally or in the U.S. but found in many different countries,” Williams said. Basically, once a burglar has had success and is familiar with a neighborhood he will keep returning there.
Think of burglary-proofing as a vaccination for your home. And like real vaccinations, they provide protection for the entire community.
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The home alarm business is a $30 billion per year industry in the United States and growing annually by 7 percent to 8 percent. A five-year study by Rutgers University showed that home security systems do deter burglaries. Local experts gave three tips: install an audible system, make sure the keypad is not visible from the outside and always turn it on even when you are away, even for a quick trip to the store.
After the Redals’ burglary they had a top-of-the-line system installed with plenty of signage. “We use it at night and all the time when we’re gone. We don’t forget to turn it on,” he said.
Know your neighbors. “Socialize and keep an eye out for each other,” Crouch said. Tell them when you are going on vacation and if anyone will be house sitting. Start a block watch group in your neighborhood. That’s what Natalie LaBerge and the people in her Tacoma North End neighborhood did after a string of burglaries.
Block watch captains share information with each other and act as hubs of information. They know if someone is on vacation, if workmen have permission to enter a home and hold get-togethers, LaBerge said.
“What is clear is that people think they know their neighbors but once they come to a gathering, discover how few of their neighbors they recognized, much less knew,” LaBerge said.
An increasing trend is for neighborhoods to create informal email lists. LaBerge’s list contains more than 400 people, keeping them updated on burglaries, thefts and the details involved.
“This has been a real eye-opener, especially for neighbors who have lived here for years,” she said. “The result is that neighbors are paying closer attention to what is happening in their neighborhood and doing what they can to make the neighborhood less attractive to crime.”
Eighty percent of burglaries occur during the daytime, Stull said. Still, interior lights are key if you are on vacation or away for long periods after dark. Use timers to turn on lights just before dusk and turn off at your normal bedtime. Having two lights set to turn on and off at different times will further confuse would-be burglars. Make sure your exterior lights have bulbs that can’t be easily removed. Motion-activated lights will bring attention to prowlers.
Modern windows come double paned and most have secondary locks. The trick, experts say, is making sure your windows are closed and locked when you are not home. OPD’s Reedy said officers often find window screens removed after a burglar entered through an unlocked window.
Still, burglars can and do break windows for entry. Williams said door windows are a frequent target because they allow the intruder to reach in and turn a dead bolt handle. Either make sure your dead bolts can only turn with a key or apply a security film to windows. (See below.)
Often, it only takes one kick to force open a door. The simplest way to make it harder for burglars is to replace the standard 1/2-inch screws in the strike plate with 3-inch screws. The longer screws will penetrate the door jamb and the frame it sits inside of. Not sure what size screw you have now? “You don’t know until you take it out but I almost guarantee you if you haven’t put three inch in you have half inch,” Crouch said.
Williams also advised replacing the 1/2-inch screws in the hinge plates with 3-inch versions. Williams himself has busted through many a door serving search warrants.
“(If the door has a dead bolt) we’ll hit the hinge because it’s easier to take the door off,” he said.
Every exterior door should have a dead bolt, Williams said. Decide before installation if the interior side should be opened by key or by handle. Consider patterns of use and nearby windows. In the Redals’ case their back door’s dead bolt was not visible from the outside, possibly causing the burglars to view it as easy entry. Since the break-in the couple had the door replaced and a metal reinforced jamb installed.
OPD’s Stull said sliding glass doors are particularly vulnerable. She suggests secondary measures: pins that prevent someone from lifting the door from its track; using a board or large dowel placed in the track between the door and the frame.
Both Stull and Crouch recommend security film on sliding glass and French doors. The material essentially turns window glass into a car windshield, making it time consuming for someone to punch a hole in it. The film can also be used on door windows and sidelights (the slim windows next to doors) that a thief could break to access a nonkeyed interior dead bolt.
Stull said one entry method uses a technique called lock bumping. Thieves insert a master key in a lock and then bump it to engage the pins and open the lock. The solution? Buy a better lock. But, “They’re expensive,” Stull said. She suggested researching the subject through consumer advocacy groups.
Homeowners use vegetation and tall fences for privacy. But it comes with a price. Doors and windows that can’t be seen from the street or by neighbors give burglars time and privacy. “It’s a trade-off – one layer of security you have to make a choice about,” Stull said. Consider thorned bushes near vulnerable sites.
THAT SPARE KEY
If junior is always misplacing his house key you might be tempted to leave a spare under the mat or the back door flower pot. The trouble is thieves know all the usual spots. (And everyone knows about those fake rocks.) If you must leave a key outside, experts say use a lock box with a combination entry that’s securely attached to an immovable object.
Homeowners can get lax about securing upper story doors and windows. That’s a problem when thieves can use ladders to quickly obtain access to a balcony or an open window. Williams said he’s seen entries made through unsecured windows that residents thought were too high or too small.
One rural Gig Harbor couple recently had their unlocked balcony door accessed by thieves who presumably (based on tire tracks) climbed up from the roof of a vehicle, undeterred by the family dog. If your ladders are too long to store in a locked shed or garage use a chain and padlock to join them together or attach them to an otherwise immovable object.
Seldom do burglars want to enter an occupied home. They know they risk arrest or worse. Last year, four alleged burglars were shot in Tacoma, two fatally, during separate incidents. Making a potential thief think your house is occupied is one way to scare them off.
These devices might further the illusion:
Fake TV: Using a small panel of very bright LEDs this device projects a randomly changing display of light that mimics a TV at a fraction of the energy bill. Project it onto curtains or a wall. It activates automatically at night. (www.faketv.com)
Radio: A radio turned on to a talk station gives the illusion of someone home.
Barking dog: No need to feed Rex, the electronic dog. It senses movement near doors and windows and plays the sound of a dog barking, increasing in frequency the longer a person stays in range. (www.amazon.com. A dog food or water dish outside a door also will further the illusion of a dog-protected home.
Don’t forget about detached garages or other out buildings when it comes to security assessment. Thieves know they are often storage sites for expensive tools and equipment. And don’t leave a garage door opener in plain sight if you park your car outside at night – it’s an easy entry tool.
If you have an attached garage consider installing a keyed lock or dead bolt (with those three inch long screws) on the door leading into the house. Williams said he has seen many situations where a burglar entered a home through an unlocked door from an attached garage.
Stop the newspaper. Have a neighbor pick up your mail or have it held at the post office. Ask a neighbor to park their car in your driveway. Put your lights on timers.
Men are not invincible to break-ins and other crimes. However, single women or single mothers can feel particularly vulnerable. Williams advises women to buy a pair of man-size boots and keep them outside an exterior door (next to the real or fake dog’s dish.) Shop second-hand stores for cheap and used-looking boots. And install peep holes in exterior doors.
Even a well-secured home still can be burglarized and experts say you should prepare for that possibility. Stull said thieves are mainly interested in easy-to-carry and easy-to-sell items. That means jewelry, guns, medicine, laptops and other small electronics. Keep records of serial numbers and take photos of potential theft items. “Now is a good time to do it, right after Christmas,” Stull said.