While my husband and I were out visiting family one weekend, thieves broke into our home, took the pillow cases off our bed, and filled them with our valuables. We didn’t know this, of course, until hours after they’d escaped, undetected, into the cool evening air.
Up until that point, I’d been naïve about home break-ins. I didn’t think one could happen to me—and for good reason. The number of U.S. burglaries has declined over the past 10 years. Yet, in 2015, there were still more than 1.5 million committed, as reported by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
Although a homeowners policy or renters policy can help defray the costs of stolen goods, for many of us, a break-in is about more than just lost stuff. For weeks after our own, I felt violated, afraid and a little angry.
What’s a homeowner to do? Turns out there are several simple steps you can take to help keep the bad guys at bay. Here’s what you should know.
Burglars Strike During the Day
Burglars don’t want to run into people. Doing so makes their job that much more difficult, which is probably why more than half of home break-ins occur during the day, when most people are at work or at school.
Thieves are often “looking for signs that no one is there,” says Trooper Pascal DiJoseph from the Pennsylvania State Police. ‘They like the easy way. They don’t want to make noise. They don’t want to get caught.”
Of course, we can’t be home all the time. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t fool a would-be burglar into thinking that we are. Here are some tips to make burglars think you’re at home to send them on their way:
- Park a car in the driveway.
- Leave some window shades up and some shades down.
- Leave a few lights on, or use a timer to set them to turn on at dusk.
- If you’re on vacation, ask a neighbor to collect your mail and circulars.
Locking Your Doors & Windows Can Stop One-Third of Break-Ins
Many home burglaries are crimes of opportunity, according to Eric M. Gruss, a Monterey County, California-based police officer. “They’ll try the front door, the side door, the back,” says Gruss. Other common points of entry include a home’s attached garage or its first-floor windows.
“People often don’t double check to make sure their windows and doors are locked,” explains Gruss. That’s the kind of complacency thieves count on. In fact, about one in three burglars enter the home when it is unlocked.
Thieves Really Do Case the Joint
Sometimes, thieves do invest time and effort in finding the perfect victim. Don’t help them in their research.
If you buy a new TV or game console, don’t leave the packaging boxes outside by the trash cans for would-be thieves to spy, warns Gruss. “That’s just advertising that you’re a good potential victim.” Instead, break down the boxes and place them inside your recycling bin, where they’ll be out of sight.
The trash isn’t the only place burglars can look. Keep your doors shut—including those that lead into your garage or shed. An open garage or shed door may display a high-end tool chest, a riding lawn mower, your circular saw, and more.
Open doors also give thieves a sneak peek at what tools they may be able to use to jimmy a lock or to climb to a second story window. And, if you’ve converted your garage into a livable space, beware.
“Here in California, a lot of people turn their garages into man caves. Keep the garage door open, and everyone can see that you have a nice TV in there,” says Gruss.
Be sure to lock your car doors, too, especially if you park on the street, in the driveway, or in an unlocked garage. Any items left in the car are at risk, but there’s an even greater danger most people may not consider. “Thieves may steal the garage door opener in the middle of the night and then return to your house during the day,” explains Gruss.
Finally, there’s social media. Profiles should be set to private, warns Gruss. Otherwise, anyone can access your—or your child’s—photos, which could showcase your expensive electronics and help thieves map the layout of your home.
They Already Know Where You Keep Your Valuables
Even if you don’t post your photos online, an experienced thief probably already knows where to go. “A lot of people keep their valuables in a jewelry box, and that’s an easy target,” says DiJoseph. “They grab it and off they go.”
He suggests keeping valuable items and family heirlooms in a household safe that is either too heavy to carry or professionally mounted to a floor or beam that can’t be removed from the home.
It’s also a good idea to keep a record of your most important possessions. Photograph your keepsakes. Document the models and serial numbers for big-ticket electronics and guns. Sometimes stolen items are recovered at a later date.
“Unless you have that information on file, though, there’s not a lot we can do to return property to its rightful owner,” explains Gruss.
And what about your spare key? “Never leave it on your property,” warns Gruss. “If you can think of a hiding spot, a bad guy can think of it too.” Instead, hand off a copy to a trusted neighbor.
You Can Make Your Home a More Difficult Target
The harder it is for a thief to enter your home, the more likely they are to go somewhere else. Here are some effective deterrents:
Install high-quality locks and secure sliding doors. Despite the high number of open-door-and-window break-ins, most burglaries do involve some sort of forcible entry, and many locks aren’t strong enough to keep the bad guys out.
“There should be deadbolts on all your doors,” advises Gruss, and he further suggests an auto-lock feature for windows. “Sliding glass doors are notorious for lock failure,” he adds. “To be extra safe, get something like a broomstick [or a dowel] and keep it along the bottom of the door, so no one will be able to open it.”
Mount a visible camera. Many home security cameras can be set to send an alert to your smartphone if someone enters the frame. “A quick glance can tell you if it’s the gardener, the exterminator, or someone else,” says Gruss. Even a fake camera can work wonders. “Thieves are more likely to pick a place that looks like it has no security on the house,” he explains.
Invest in a home security system. As with a camera, just the sight of an alarm system sticker can be enough to deter a would-be thief. “People sometimes don’t like the sticker, they don’t like the way it looks, but posting it really does make a difference,” affirms Gruss.
But, don’t just buy a sticker. If a burglar forces entry through your back door, and doesn’t trigger an alarm, they’ll know pretty quickly that you’re bluffing—and that your home is unguarded.
Even with an alarm, once a burglar is in, time is of the essence. “Sometimes they’re out before the siren even goes off, sometimes within a minute or two,” says DiJoseph. “That sounds like a short amount of time, but try it. Set a watch and see if you can run through every room of your house in under a minute.”
(Note: I tried it. He was right. I was able to make it through my home in under a minute.) DiJoseph suggests setting your system’s siren delay for just 10-15 seconds.
Trim your hedges. “High shrubs provide cover for a prowler,” explains Gruss. Keep them cut back to below your window so a burglar can’t hide while trying to pick your lock or break your glass.
Even if you follow these tips, they aren’t guaranteed to keep your home safe from burglars. Still, the harder it is to get to your goods and the more likely they are to get caught, the less likely a thief will be to select your home. If only I had known this earlier.