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“I noticed something was up when I reached for the door handle.”
Tom, a 34-year-old writer in St. Louis, was headed home after a long day. His girlfriend lives with him, and they both work unsteady hours; when he saw that his front door was partly opened, he assumed that she’d come home early.
“I was about to start lecturing her, but then I realized that her car wasn’t in the driveway. Then I saw a bunch of our stuff smashed on the floor. I put two and two together pretty quickly.”
“You feel a sense of violation, and it doesn’t go away,” Tom says of the home break-in. “Every time you hear a noise on the street, you wonder if it’s someone coming back,” he says. “And most of the time, you don’t get your stuff back, either. That certainly sucks.”
To avoid becoming a target for criminals, you’ve got to think like a criminal. That’s not necessarily easy, but fortunately, some criminals are willing to talk about the tactics and tools they use to break the law. We drew from national statistics and surveys of real-life criminals to find out how to make a home a difficult target for burglars—and the mistakes that can lead to heartbreak for homeowners.
1. You leave your house empty during the day.
In the movies, robberies take place at night. The homeowners are asleep, so it’s a good time to pick through their stuff, right?
Burglars typically work during the day since, well, most working people aren’t home during the day. Per security firm Protect America, 65 percent of burglaries occur between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., with the vast majority of break-ins occurring from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“Burglars will usually target properties which look unoccupied and provide an easy entry and exit point, so that they can get away undetected,” Martin Scott of Churchill Home Insurance told The Mirror in 2017. Scott’s company surveyed convicted burglars in an effort to find home security weak points.
The takeaway was simple: Most burglars would prefer not to deal with homeowners, so they go into homes during the day. Many professional burglars use uniforms so that they don’t look out of place; after all, neighbors are less likely to report a moving company or an electrician than a shifty-looking guy clad in black.
However, most criminals aren’t professionals—they’re simply unscrupulous individuals who see an opportunity.
“My burglar was actually someone who was staying with my neighbors,” Tom says. “They knew that I had some expensive stuff, and I suppose they had some habits to support.”
Obviously, you can’t occupy your home at all times.
Of course, you don’t need to go high-tech to make your home look occupied. Consider leaving a television or radio on; most thieves will hear the noise and move on, assuming the home to be occupied. But that’s not great for your electric bill; plus, it’s easy to forget.
To make your home appear occupied in a jam…
Smart light bulbs are particularly useful; you can remotely trigger them or remotely set them to randomly turn on and off, which should give any would-be thieves pause when they’re casing your home. Bulbs like the LOHAS A19 connect to your home’s wifi, and they’re controllable via a smartphone app.
While they’re a bit expensive, they can last for years, and they’re fully compatible with voice systems like Alexa. Plus, they change colors, which is cool—and cool counts for something.
To turn the burglar away at the door…
Some will still knock on your door to see if anyone’s around, however, and that tactic is difficult to guard against.
One option is a wifi-enabled video doorbell. The Ring system sends you a notification when someone rings the doorbell, at which point you can speak to the visitors (or burglars, as the case may be) and give the impression that you’re in the home.
You can also enable motion-activated alerts or sound a siren, scaring off thieves before they get a chance to do any damage.
2. You leave your windows and doors unlocked.
For a burglar targeting multiple homes, the goal is to get in and out as quickly as possible. Obviously, an unlocked door makes this process much easier. A HuffPost/YouGov poll found that 7 percent of Americans don’t lock their doors when they leave their homes; older individuals are more likely to be non-lockers, and men are more likely than women to say that they don’t bother locking up.
One study found that 30 percent of burglars enter homes through unlocked doors, so if you’re in the habit of leaving without locking up, you might want to rethink your strategy. Of course, an unsecure lock is almost as bad as having no lock at all; 34 percent of burglars enter through the front door, and when confronted with a lock, many will simply kick their way through.
“I would kick in the door rather than break glass,” one convicted burglar told KTVB. “Loud bangs are better than loud glass breaking, plus you run the risk of getting cut.”
That’s not to say that windows aren’t targets. Criminals know that windows are left unlocked at a much higher rate than doors, and if they’re not able to kick in a door, they’ll move on to the next obvious point of entry.
To keep yourself protected, invest in high-quality locks.
That’s fairly obvious; locks, however, are important everywhere, not just your door.
For your front door…
Consider upgrading to a reinforced lock that will prevent thieves from busting in. Our pick here is the Defender Security U-11126, a heavy-duty lock designed to withstand 800 pounds of force.
It complements your existing lock, so you won’t have a big, ugly piece of metal on your home’s exterior, but you’ll have decent protection on any swing-in door. Best of all, it has three 3-inch hardened screws for easy installation—remember, your lock is only as good as the screws holding it in place.
For your windows…
The Windobully locking system attaches to any window or door, and it installs in seconds without tools.
It’s tested for up to 300 pounds of force; if a thief is using more force than that, he’ll probably just break through the window, which you can’t really prevent. But remember, most thieves avoid making noise since nothing draws police sirens quite like the sound of shattering glass.
Another option is the Safety 1st system, which is a permanent installation. It has a locking indicator, so you’ll know at a glance whether or not you’re leaving your home vulnerable.
It can be easily disabled for longer periods, and while it’s made of plastic, it’s enough extra protection for most residential homes.
For your sliding door…
Sliding doors also need to be secured, but that’s not necessarily easy—particularly if you have an older home. The Master Lock security bar is one effective option.
It’s made with 20-gauge steel, and it attaches conveniently to the bottom of sliding doors, preventing them from moving out of place even when the primary lock is disengaged. It’s adjustable, installs in seconds, and also adds protection to hinged doors.
Finally, for your garage…
Garages are an easy point of entry, and thieves know that you keep valuable stuff in there. Tools, lawn mowers, and small appliances are pretty easy to pawn. Protect your garage with a deadlock like the Prime-Line GD 52118, which is made from galvanized steel.
It engages on a vertical track, so you can only lock it from the inside of your garage. This is an additional lock—not a primary lock—and it’s a smart home security upgrade for homes with garages and sheds.
3. You let your mail pile up while you’re on vacation.
Per security company SAFEGUARDTHEWORLD, most burglaries occur during the last few months of the summer. That’s partially because people tend to take vacation time in the summer—and savvy thieves know how to find vacationers.
The most obvious sign that you’re not going to cause issues for burglars: Your mail is piling up on your step. Ideally, homeowners should ask trustworthy neighbors to stop by occasionally and pick up newspapers, junk mail, and anything else that might accumulate in the mailbox and doorstep. If that’s not an option, check to see whether your local post office can hold your mail while you’re out of town.
While you’re at it, pay attention to your yard. Hire someone to mow your lawn regularly so that your home doesn’t seem obviously vacant. House sitters are an obvious solution, and sites like HouseSitter.com can help you find a reliable (and insured) sitter if none of your friends are available.
If that’s not an option, consider investing in a secure mailbox.
This’ll help you twofold: Nobody will know you’re out of town by looking at your mailbox, and nobody will jack your mail, either.
If you’re in the market for a better mailbox, consider the Mail Box 7206. As its name suggests, it’s a box with no obvious frills, and that’s exactly the appeal. While it won’t stick out on a street, its patented design automatically secures your mail, preventing anyone from accessing your mail via a 12-disc wafer lock and 14-gauge galvanized welded steel.
Plus, its high-capacity chassis will provide a significant upgrade over most curbside units.
Even if you’re never targeted by burglars, this is a great unit for preventing your elderly neighbors from grabbing your magazines. Maybe now you’ll get your own Better Homes & Gardens subscription, Janice.
4. You have a window air conditioning unit.
If you live in an apartment, there’s a good chance that you’ve got an air conditioner on one of your home’s windows. The bad news: If that window is accessible, it’s a potential point of entry.
By nature, most window units are a security hazard, since they’re smaller than the window itself; a burglar simply needs to pry around the unit to gain entry to your home. If your air conditioner is held in place by gravity, it’s unsecured.
The good news is that you don’t have to throw away that window unit just yet. Most newer units come with mounting hardware, which can offer some protection; make sure that the hardware uses high-quality materials at its connection points and that it doesn’t leave room for a pry bar where the air conditioner slots into the window.
If you’re going out of town for a significant length of time, consider removing the air conditioner temporarily in order to properly secure the window during your trip. While that might seem like a pain, it’s certainly better than coming home to an empty apartment.
Aftermarket systems can help you secure window air conditioners.
They’ll require a bit of installation, sure, but compared to how long it takes to install an air conditioning unit, they’re a breeze. The AC Safe AC-160, for instance, is easy to install and supports units that weigh up to 160 pounds.
It also comes with a free security lock, which should give you some peace of mind while you’re out and about.
A simpler, less expensive option is the AC-702, a window security and stability kit made with thick metal for reliable protection. Each kit comes with two weather-resistant window locks and an easy-to-release mount to hold your air conditioner unit in place.
4. You make it obvious that you have valuables.
Tom says that his burglars quickly honed in on his instruments, which they’d seen him unloading from his car regularly.
“I play in a few bands, so I’m always loading in gear, and my bandmates sometimes leave stuff over at my house. We try to practice later at night so nobody’s watching us, but there’s no question that the thieves knew what to look for.”
The burglars stole several expensive instruments, along with Tom’s television and several computers, but they missed a few valuable items.
“I have a bunch of first-edition books that are actually far more valuable than anything they took,” he says. “The detective told me that wasn’t surprising. Nobody breaks into a house looking for books.”
As KTVB reported, most convicted burglars admitted to looking for jewelry, electronics, and other items that were easy to pawn. While some look for collectibles, their top priority is getting in and out of a house quickly—not pausing to look up prices on eBay.
To protect yourself, try to bring valuable items into your house later in the evening.
If you live in the city and you’re picking up a new television, for instance, you might want to keep it in the trunk of your car, then bring it in quickly and discreetly when you’ve got a chance. Consider storing small valuables in a safe.
While it’s a bit gimmicky, just know that we’re big fans of this “New English Dictionary” book safe, which has a believable cover and spine and a three-number combination lock.
It should provide adequate protection for your stuff in the event of a break-in—unless your burglars start a really competitive game of Scrabble.
If you’re looking to store more than a book’s worth, the SentrySafe X031 is significantly larger with a capacity of 0.31 cubic feet, and it comes with a bolt-down kit to dissuade criminals from running off with the entire unit.
Its lock uses two live-locking bolts, and the steel construction will protect its contents from all but the most dedicated thieves.
6. Your home is in a convenient location.
Burglars are all about convenience. They’re looking for the highest possible reward with the lowest risk, and home location factors greatly into their considerations.
According to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at the University of Albany, burglars value visibility and accessibility over security. In other words, even if you’ve got a decent security system, if your home is attractive to burglars, you’re more likely to be victimized.
If your home’s near a major thoroughfare, on the outskirts of a neighborhood, or near a ready pool of offenders, your chances of a burglary go up significantly. Most offenders commit crimes near where they live—you’re more likely to be targeted by a neighbor than a professional burglar.
Thieves may also prioritize a home that has an entrance within easy access of an alley or street. Obscured entrances are also attractive, so homes with a large number of trees are easier targets. If your neighbors don’t have a clear view of your home’s entrances, you may want to take steps to change that.
If you’re not ready to move or to chop down your trees, at least make sure your home is well lit. Take special care to reinforce side doors leading to alleyways, since these are obvious entrance points for burglars.
Security lighting is an inexpensive upgrade that significantly reduces your chances of theft.
We’d recommend the LITOM 24 LED series, which is solar powered. Each pack includes two wide-angle lights with six LEDs that activate for 20 seconds when motion is detected.
Place the lights at each entrance, and you may scare away thieves who’ve pegged your house as an easy target.
7. You don’t have an alarm system.
What do criminals do when confronted with an alarm?
“I would try and turn it off or get the hell out of there,” a convicted burglar told KTVB.
In a sense, your alarms are your last line of defense, but they’re remarkably effective. These days, they’re also fairly inexpensive, and many insurance companies offer discounts for homes with security systems (per The New York Times, the percentage of the discount varies depending on the sophistication of the system, but even a security system with modest features can pay for itself via discounted insurance rates).
With that said, remember that the purpose of the security system is to minimize losses—not to prevent them entirely.
“The point of a security system is to reduce loss,” Mike Miller, president of the Electronic Security Association, told The New York Times. “It may be that instead of losing your TV, you could have lost a lot more.”
One inexpensive option is the Ring Alarm Whole-Home system.
It comes with a base station, contact sensor, motion detector, keypad, and range extender—everything you need for basic protection. When the system detects motion, it sends a notification to your iOS or Android device, and optional professional monitoring features are available for $10 per month.
Advanced motion sensitivity features ensure that it won’t be triggered by pets weighing less than 50 pounds (and if you’ve got pets weighing more than 50 pounds, chances are good that you don’t need the system in the first place). For less than $200, it’s an inexpensive way to stay protected.
8. You don’t think about noise.
Alarms work because burglars hate noise. Remember, they’re looking to minimize risk, and any unusual sound will likely alert neighbors that something’s happening. That’s why one of the most useful crime deterrents is also one of the most obvious: dogs.
“Dogs are a deal breaker for me,” one inmate told KTVB. “Big breeds, home protectors are the best to keep people out.”
If you can’t afford a dog, consider a “beware of dog” sign. Burglars often case a property before they make the decision to break in; some simple signage could be enough to send them on to the next house.
If your thieves aren’t afraid of dogs, rigging windows with audible alarms can dissuade them before they get a chance to take your sweet, sweet stuff.
These GE window alarms trigger a 120-decibel alert when the two sides are separated; if a thief tries to hoist a window, they’ll get an ear-piercing reminder of why crime doesn’t pay. They’re also equipped with a low-battery test feature, and four LR44 batteries to ensure that your alarms work when they’re needed most.
Best of all, they don’t require mounting hardware, so you can install them on any window or door frame.