Every dinner party you attend you hear about the latest fail-safe security innovations, only to be told next moment about some smart crook who bypassed those so-called impenetrable barriers. It seems that there’s no absolutely fool-proof, burglar-proof product or process that ensures a hundred per cent that you will never fall victim to home robbery.
But hanging around and doing nothing while fence jumping becomes our national sport is most definitely not the answer. So how do you go about securing your home? Simple. Ask the experts. And who are the experts? The security companies? Insurance companies? The police? Your brother-in-law? Your hairdresser? Yes, and no. All of the above have valuable information and advice to give, but the real experts are … the house robbers themselves.
Professor Rudolph Zinn, a criminologist and former police officer with extensive experience in the field, consults to police departments in South Africa and abroad, and lectures at UNISA’s College of Law. In 2006 and 2007 he conducted in-depth interviews with 30 convicted house robbers, and wrote up the findings in a book called “Home Invasion”. It’s a bit of a scary read, but full of really useful information. The most important thing that he found out is that there are no absolutely foolproof rules, only guidelines. But in the absence of absolutes, guidelines are very useful indeed.
Firstly – remember that criminals are human beings with feelings and needs. And chances are they don’t care about your needs. What that boils down to is that most criminals will do anything to avoid being caught, and almost anything to get what they want. For them house robbery is a business – so, like all good entrepreneurs, they want to maximise profit and minimise risk. This means they choose their targets carefully and plan the operation in detail to maximise the chances of success and minimise the chances of getting caught.
Obviously the best scenario is to never actually deal with a home robber at all, so let’s start with how they choose targets. What makes a good robbery target. Robbers first decide how easy a target a given neighbourhood is by looking at ease of access, escape routes and lack of visible neighbourhood security. Then they evaluate the specific property. If your house has no security, is easily accessible from the street and offers an easy getaway route, then you’re more likely to fall victim. It’s a balancing act – risk vs reward.
Next, they check out the reward part. If it’s obvious from the exterior of your house, your car, and your clothes and jewellery that you are rich, and that you spend lots of money on durable and desirable goodies, you are more likely to be a target. Thieves also often target owners of small businesses or market traders who are likely to have lots of cash in the house the day before payday or the day after a market. But even people who aren’t particularly affluent are wealthy in relative terms: if you live in a house with a roof, and you drive a car with wheels, you’re rich.
You’re not likely to want to swap your car for a clapped-out rust-bucket 1985 Beetle, and it’s probably not worth filling your garden with dead refrigerators and scrap metal just to create an impression of indigence – besides, the body corporate may have a word or two to say about that. But be sensible. If you do need to handle large amounts of cash, don’t be obvious about it, and don’t leave expensive gadgets in full view. However, even if you take these precautions, it’s still going to be pretty obvious that you’re relatively affluent, so it’s best to ensure you have adequate security.
There are any number of security measures on the market, but Zinn’s research did come up with some very interesting propositions. The two most effective deterrents are dogs and neighbours – but not just any dogs and neighbours. Burglars don’t like neighbourhoods where there is a strong sense of community, with initiatives like neighbourhood watches and community policing forums. And – here’s a surprising one – keeping a rottweiler or a pit bull in the backyard is not nearly as effective as a couple of yorkies or dachshunds parking off on the couch, or sleeping in their designer pet-beds. The ideal is a combination of two little dogs and one bigger, slightly scary one, all inside the house. Dogs outside the house are not that much of a deterrent – even if they’re big – as they can easily be dealt with (further content censored for sensitive viewers). Dogs inside the house act as an early warning system by making a noise – and they can’t be silenced from outside. And early warning is what it’s all about. Perimeter security is really important.
Burglars like to know when people are around so they can break into an empty house.
Disconcertingly, house robbers also often choose to break in when people are at home. But they like to know where everyone in the house is at any given time. So drawing your curtains as soon as it gets dark is a simple but very effective security measure. And, for the same reason, high walls that people can’t see through also prevent robbers from monitoring your movements. The downside, though, is that once over the wall, they are also hidden from the street and from neighbours – and then they can monitor you from the seclusion of your darkened garden. The robbers Zinn interviewed agreed that high palisade fencing and curtains are probably the best combination. Spikes and electric fencing also help, but can be circumvented.
Also be aware of what is going on around you, day by day. Most robbers scope out a potential victim for anything from a few hours to a few weeks, or even months if the rewards seem promising.
Burglar alarms are a great idea, particularly if connected to exterior beams. It really is so much better to be aware of intruders before they enter your house. For this reason as well, door and window sensors are more useful than interior motion sensors. Of course, armed response is another worthwhile deterrent. Remember, an alarm only protects you when it’s switched on. Many people only arm their alarms at bedtime, but the robbers told Zinn that one of the best times to hit a home is before that, when people are relaxed watching TV. The sound masks any noises the intruders make, the residents are distracted – and the alarm isn’t on.
Interestingly, Zinn’s respondents said they were not particularly put off by armed response signs, as these simply warned them that there was an alarm system that would need to be disabled, something a seasoned burglar can do pretty easily if he feels it’s worth the trouble. What works better is an alarm without warning signs. That way, if a potential robber breaks in without having planned for an alarm, he is surprised when it goes off and will try to leave as soon as possible. Oh – and don’t even think of those silly “warning, live snakes” signs. Really! Robbers may be dishonest, immoral, and even totally evil, but they aren’t stupid.
What to do if you are robbed
OK, so what do you do if, despite all your best attempts, you end up with a robber in your house? Remember, these are human beings with feelings, emotions and needs. And what they want and need is, in no particular order, your stuff and to feel safe. Yes, really. To feel safe. Just because they making you feel unsafe is part of their job description doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate safety – it’s just that they care about their own safety and don’t care about yours. That’s mutual, you’re probably thinking, but don’t let on, because making them feel unsafe is likely to drastically decrease your chances of actually staying safe.
This means that the smartest thing you can do is to give them what they want. Give up all your stuff. All of it, even your most treasured antique heirloom jewellery, even your laptop with an almost finished novel on it that you hadn’t quite got round to backing up, and your cellphone with all your numbers and stuff. Give it all up, willingly and fast. That’s the robber’s need number one taken care of – your stuff.
Their need number two? To feel safe. Don’t look at them – that way they’ll know you can’t identify them. Make no sudden movements, and keep your hands where they can see them. Be humble, be polite, but don’t try to appeal to their better nature, because in many cases that better nature is hard to detect. Although many of them did tell Zinn that asking them not to hurt you would help. According to one respondent, being submissive shows respect – a rather warped kind of respect, but respect nevertheless. Don’t even think of trying to outwit them or being clever or sarcastic. You might feel that this advice will make you look wimpish – well, live with it!
Of course, there are exceptions. If you are a Mossad-trained anti-insurgency specialist, a Recce or Chuck Norris, if there are no children in the house, and if you just happen to have your automatic weapon in your hand when they crash through the front door – by all means turn it into a fight.
But if the above does not describe you, let your cellphone be your weapon of choice. Don’t try to be a hero. Hero to zero can be achieved in one rapidly terminated heartbeat. If you hear (or even think you hear) a break-in and you’re not in the same room as the intruder, quietly get out the house through a back door and hide in the garden, or try to get to a neighbour, and call armed response, the police or the estate security. Or all three. If that’s not possible, lock yourself and your family into one bedroom or bathroom and stay very, very quiet. And yes, call armed response and the rest. And if you come home and even vaguely suspect there may have been a break-in, don’t enter the house.
Do not enter the house!
Just don’t, OK? Call the tough guys.
Get some cute (preferably yappy) dogs, get to know your neighbours, take an active part in community security initiatives, invest in logical, common-sense security features like good fences, exterior beams, burglar bars, armed response and maybe CCTV, and be aware of your surroundings. And if you still end up with some baddies in the house – just do your best to keep things as cool and businesslike as possible. It’s a numbers game – they want your stuff, but that’s not as important as not going to jail. You’d like to keep your stuff but that’s not as important as not getting hurt.
We have only touched the surface, there’s so much more. So it’s worth getting hold of a copy of the book.
Zinn, R, 2010. Home Invasion. Tafelberg: Cape Town.