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You cannot protect against
that which you do not know.

Types of Burglars

On this page:
Understanding the Nature of the Animal | The Enemies of Thieves | Types of Burglars | Opportunity | Smashers | Prowlers | Pros | It Takes a Thief | Safe Room | More information

It is important to realize that there is no such thing as a burglar-proof home or a car that cannot be broken into and stolen. Or a lock that cannot be picked, drilled or bypassed. There is no security system that cannot be broached. Impenetrable defenses take their places up there with the Easter Bunny. If someone is dedicated enough, skilled enough and has the proper tools, he will get in, no matter what measures you take.

That's the bad news. The good news is unless you have done something to annoy the wrong person or you have something really worth stealing (like the crown jewels) you are not going to have to worry about that kind of dedication to break in. So you don't have to turn your home into a reinforced bunker.

What you can reasonably do, however, is  make it hard enough that the average criminal will decide to ply his trade elsewhere.

This simple shift in perspective goes miles toward keeping you, your family and your possessions safe. Criminals are not famous for their work ethic. On top of that, they, literally, live and die by calculated risks. Assessing labor and risk are very much criminal skills. Too hard and too risky are the best defenses you have. Since the criminal is not interested in getting "you" personally, it's easier for him to inflict his criminality on others where there is less work and fewer risks. This is not good news for your neighbors, but it keeps you and your property safe.

Understanding the Nature of the Animal
Although a fuller description of the criminal mindset is given elsewhere on this site, two important issues need l;to be addressed.

The first is that the average criminal doesn't care how much destruction he causes to get what he wants. He will literally cause thousands of dollars in damages to get something that will net him only $10 or $20. The best example is the thief who destroys your dashboard to get to your car stereo .+9.. which will only get him a few dollars at the pawn shop or from a fence. He doesn't care about you or the trauma he inflicts by both destroying and stealing your property. All he cares about is getting what he wants. And he will inflict complete carnage to obtain it.

This is why the issue of "what is protecting the protection?" is so important. Your crime deterrents must be able to withstand an all-out assault. The best lock in the world will do you no good if the door frame can be easily kicked out. It is easier and faster to smash a padlock with sledgehammer (and in doing so tear off the hasp) than to pick the lock. Because criminals often cause destruction to gain entry, you must learn to look beyond the immediate safety measure to see if it can be easily bypassed by breaking things.

The second issue is you need to understand: criminals are professionals. This is how they make their living.

Stop and think about that for a second, because it is that important. Being a professional doesn't just mean being paid. It means you know how to do particular skills better than the average person and have a certain way of thinking. That last means they know things about the subject and look at issues in their field differently than you do. Criminals are -- to varying degrees -- good at what they do. Even the most incompetent thief is better at illegal activity than the average citizen. And that is a skill.

What we are saying is: Criminals have skills and knowledge that you don't about what it takes to break into homes, businesses and cars. What would stop you, might not even slow him down. He knows ways to quickly get through standard "egg shell" (1) security measures. In many cases, he can get in to a flimsily protected area faster than you can. You see a lock, he sees something he can pop off with a screwdriver faster than you can unlock it. You see a locked car, he sees a window he can smash. I've seen a criminal walk up and kick in a door without ever slowing his pace. That locked door might as well not have even been there for all it slowed him down.

You must tailor any theft protection system to counter his skills. You're trying to stop a professional, not yourself. This is why knowing who you are trying to keep out and how he operates is important
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The Enemies of Thieves
As stated, there is no such thing as a perfect lock or security system. Given enough time, work and the proper tools any system can be bypassed. But we also mentioned that time and attention are the enemies of thieves. Anything that slows them down is, in their minds, "bad." If it attracts unwanted attention, it is even worse.

This is where you can stack the deck in your favor. You don't need an impenetrable system, all you need is  something that effectively counters the way criminals operate.

Burglars rely on people either not noticing them or thinking they are something else (like a delivery men or someone just out walking). Before leaving their homes, they often equip themselves with concealed tools (or in the case of some higher level burglars, a plain delivery van and dressed like blue collar workers). It is under the cover of this anonymity that they will position themselves to commit a crime. That is to say they come onto your property and start looking for easy ways in. Once they are in the right place, they can gain entry in a matter of seconds -- thereby falling off the radar. (Your neighbor looks out sees a repairman outside your house and then, when he or she looks again, doesn't see him anymore. Nothing odd about that, right?). Once inside the criminal will quickly commit the crime and then leave the area. All in less time than a short delivery or pick up. Although we're talking about property crimes, the Five Stages of Violent Crime also apply with some slight modifications because it is functionally the same process. The "interview" is the criminal deciding how to commit the crime.

Burglars tend to try to minimize attention-attracting behaviors before breaking in. When they act, however, there is a period of time that they are at risk of being noticed and their "cover blown" (e.g., a "repairman" doesn't climb through a window). Make no mistake, while setting it up, they are still engaging in the criminal process, but -- unless you know the little signs and signals -- it often looks innocent. When everything is set up, they drop the pretension and act. Because their cover is blown, they must act quickly. Gaining entrance through an open window is fast and quiet. Almost as fast is finding an unlocked one. Consequently, he will often walk around the house and look for an open window, quickly testing windows with a slight push. If your neighbor doesn't know what testing windows looks like, even if he or she sees the criminal, this behavior is less obvious than staying in one place and trying to jimmy through a locked window, an obvious sign of breaking in.

The next step might seem contrary to the idea of not attracting attention, but it is consistent with both not attracting attention and quick entry. If he can't find an open or unlocked window, the fastest means to enter is to smash a window (or kick in a door). One loud noise, reach in, undo the lock, slide open the window and he's in. If, hearing a noise, a neighbor walks over and looks out her window, she will not see him inside the building. As long as the burglar gets through the window, the most to be seen is an open window. In under 10 seconds from making a loud noise, he's out of sight from people who will call the police. This is a successful break-in. This same idea also applies to kicking a back or side door in or breaking out a window in a decorative door. After breaking through a door, experienced criminals will close it behind them.

A window that has multiple locks that cannot be opened all at once or has shatterproof glass is unexpected and unwanted surprise and delay. A door that has hidden security measures and a motion detection light above it will not be easily forced. The combination of unexpected resistance, increased noise, delay and lights will greatly increase the risk of his being seen without his disguise of innocence. And he knows it. Remember criminals function based on calculated risks. Interjecting these unexpected problems often result in his aborting the robbery.

Your security systems must meet two basic criteria: delay and alert. By alert we don't just mean authorities, we also mean that it warns you when you are home if someone is trying to break in. Remember, home security is also for your protection, as well.

The third enemy of thieves is "no profit."

Thieves will seldom face risk if they don't think they will benefit. They don't break in just to do a recon -- except in the worst neighborhoods. They prefer to go in knowing there are valuables there. So another layer of your defenses needs to be keeping things out of view that might attract thieves. Thieves are like rats and cockroaches. Vermin tend to go to places that are sloppy and where there are things to eat. Keep your home clean, and you won't attract these pests. In the same vein, keep valuables out of sight from ground floor windows (or at least close the drapes). You're less likely to attract thieves, who, while testing the windows, will also be looking in them. Return to top of page

Types of Burglars
There are four basic types of burglars: Opportunity, Smashers, Prowlers and Pros

Each of these titles describes a specific type of modus operandi that you must be aware of and guard against. What will stop an Opportunity burglar, will not stop a Pro. The good news is that numerically speaking Pros are as rare as hen's teeth while Smashers are as common as fleas. The really good news is if you protect against Prowlers, you will have protected yourself against most burglaries

The name pretty well says it all. There is the criminal just walking along, and he sees that your door was left open. Although less common with burglary than other kinds of crime, it still happens. There are times that petty criminals take jobs that have them going from door to door and delivering junk mail, selling things, etc., etc. The door just swings open before him. Or he could just be walking down the hallway of the apartment complex ... and you didn't quite close the door because you were on the way to the laundry room and had your hands full. Open door equals opportunity. He'll dash in, grab something and run.

Although people are more cautious about closing the doors to their homes, a very common opportunity burglary happens when you leave your garage door open. The thief sees something he wants and grabs it. If you have "just run to the store" and left the garage door open, you have just invited in an opportunity burglar. Items left on your front porch or in your yard also are the target of such thieves. And kids often leave things like bikes, your binoculars or electronics out in the yard.

Items left on the car seat and the door unlocked also encourages a common type of opportunity theft. Often youngsters, whether individually or in a pack, will travel between cars in a parking lot car and check the door handles. When they find one unlocked, they will stop and "toss" the car. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon among such groups to destroy the inside of your car if they cannot find anything worth stealing to express their displeasure. Unless you know what to specifically look for, this behavior will just look like some kids passing through a parking lot.

When it comes to your home or garage being targeted, the same idea applies. Many opportunity thieves are either a single or a pack of kids who are just roaming the neighborhood. They see the chance and they take it. Opportunity thefts are also common in areas where there are a number of indigents and a degree of pass-through foot traffic (such as bus stops and train or subway stations). The closer you are to major streets, bus stops and schools, the more care you must take not to leave yourself open to opportunity thieves.

Your best defense against opportunity burglars is a combination of walk-aways and habits as described in the Pyramid of Personal Safety. Simple habits about not leaving things out, closing and locking doors will prevent most opportunity thefts. Return to top of page

The full name of this type is "Smash and Dash" and like opportunity thieves, the name pretty well tells you what you are dealing with. Smashers tend to be either young and scared or seriously along into drug addiction, alcoholism, insanity or all of the above. Once inside a Smasher will often just find one or two items, seize them and make the dash. They don't linger and do a thorough job of going through your stuff. They are either scared or on their way to getting high or drunk. That is why they dash.

This kind of criminal often reacts on the spur of the moment. He sees the opportunity and "goes for it." When it comes to burglary, however, it tends to be less opportunistic and somewhat more planned. Although planned, it isn't necessarily sophisticated. Such a burglar (depending on the neighborhood) will walk along, find a likely looking house, go around the side or back and either kick in the door or smash a window. In other areas, he will climb fire escapes or prowl apartment complexes.

Smashers tend not to have the resources of Prowlers. Often they are homeless or are young kids who live nearby. Although in most cases he will be not armed with tools to smash his way in, homeless people can carry screwdrivers for protection as well as break-in tools. But the most common tools of a Smash and Dash burglars are not what you might think, a jacket wrapped around an arm is a common way to break a window. By far the most common burglary tool is their shoe.

Interestingly enough, many, smash and dashes are through back or garage doors (especially attached garages). Although windows are used to gain access, it takes longer to get through a window than forcing a door. This is why doors are often chosen means of entry. This is especially true of back doors with windows in them. By merely busting out a panel of glass (less noise, ergo less attention) they can reach through and unlock the door. And it is not uncommon for large objects, such as flower pots or lawn furniture, to be thrown throw glass doors.

Smashers are just as likely to go after a garage, shed or business as they are houses. Security measures for those units need to be designed to withstand an all-out assault. In poorer and commercialized urban areas, the combination of indigents and young criminals will result in almost constant probes against your security measures by these kinds of 'low rent" criminals. Return to top of page

Prowlers are the next step up and more professional. And that makes them more dangerous on a number of levels. While they may still use the smash tactics to gain entrance, they are not about to dash. While there they are going to have a look around and pick and choose as to what they are going to take. More importantly, they know what they can get the most for and that is what they will go for. Unlike Smashers, Prowlers usually have extensive criminal connections to channel stolen goods for the most money.

Furthermore, prowlers also tend to be a little more sly about the ways that they gain entry. The higher level ones are who often take measures to disguise their actions by pretending to be delivery or repair people. Prowlers often carry tools. Why make a lot of noise kicking a door in when with a pry bar you can gain entry faster and with less noise? Better yet, just slide an unlocked window open or come in through an unlocked door?

Such criminals know the common tricks of hiding valuables in the freezer, your underwear drawer or under the mattress. So they will go through certain rooms thoroughly while basically ignoring others. Unfortunately, what constitutes thoroughly can mean that they literally "trash" everything in the place, taking out drawers, and dumping their contents on the floor, strewing the contents of upper shelves in closets across the room and tossing items about with disregard for breakage. They will ransack your house to get what they want, some even will intentionally vandalize. The destruction they cause is often more traumatic to the victim than the actual theft itself.

Another important thing is that they often know the normal response time of security companies. So they know how long they can spend in a home they are burglarizing. That means they are in and out of your house in under 10 minutes -- still under the time the police or most security companies can respond. This need for speed is often the cause for the amount of damage the criminals do looting your home.

In case you are wondering how much they can pillage in such a short time, let us put things in perspective. How many suitcases and pillowcases do you have in your house? Often they will fill these up. Remember, they know where people typically hide things and what it is they are looking for. Instead of going through your jewelry box piece by piece, they will just dump it en mass into a suitcase.

Often prowlers work in teams. One does the break in and pillaging. He stacks items by the door. Another, possibly two or three, are in a car in the neighborhood. When the house is picked clean, the car pulls up, they quickly load the vehicle and drive away. Another way to keep from getting caught is one burglar breaks in, phones his partner on the cell, then opens the garage door, his partner pulls in and they close the garage door again. Thereby hiding the car or van while they load up. Perhaps the worst version is if you have a vehicle in your garage and a set of spare keys on a key hook. They drive away with all your stuff in your own vehicle.

Unfortunately, Prowlers have discovered a very lucrative side business: Identity theft. Most are no longer interested in large electronics. With one sweep of their arm all your credit card information, passports, bank statements, car title, spare keys and even the deed to your home goes into a pillowcase. They'll sort it out later. The amount of money they can make there either by selling your information or using it themselves, far outstrips the amount they can make from a TV. Similarly, laptops, cellphones, personal electronics and software are just as choice targets as jewelry for these kinds of burglars. This is another reason to back up everything on your computer and video tape the contents of your home.

What makes these people more dangerous is that they are not afraid. It takes serious nerve to calmly invade and stay in someone's home until it is picked clean. Because they are not afraid, they can also become far more aggressive if surprised. This is why if you find you have been burglarized , go back outside, call the police and DO NOT re-enter your home without them.  

In some cases, Prowlers are on their way to graduating to more serious crimes like rape and murder. There are Prowlers who will break into your home when you are there. A "burglar" who insists on breaking into occupied houses is basically looking for an excuse to become physically violent, if he isn't there just to out-and-out rape or kill. This is why we made the comment about delay and alert being to alert you as well. Return to top of page

There are two types of Pros: Snipers and Locusts.

A Sniper is what you see in the movies. That is a criminal who is there for something specific. Now unlike the suave art thief you see who is commissioned to steal a priceless piece by a jealous rival collector, Pros are often part of a ring. Often these rings are nationwide, so items stolen in one state are shipped and sold in others. These people are not your casual burglars. They know what they want, where it is and they come for it. Although they might use prowler tactics to gain entry, they don't need to destroy your house to get what they want.

Such criminals often have informants in insurance agencies so they know the value of insured items and the nature of security systems protecting them. This is why you should always take extra measures that you don't tell the insurance company to protect your possessions. For example, if you have an expensive jewelry collection, tell them about your security system, but don't tell them about the safe. Or if you do, tell them a different, and inferior brand name. Don't tell them about the anchors that hold expensive artwork to the wall and require a special tool to take down. Also take the name of anyone who calls you from the insurance company asking if you have updated your security measures, do this before refusing to answer. Then call back and ask if the company authorized such an inquiry.

The other type of professional is what we call Locusts. Like their insectoid brethren these kinds will strip the landscape bare. Like the Snipers, they tend to operate as part of a large ring and use informants. Although possibly in the insurance company, their informants are more likely in businesses you notify when you are going to be gone (like your newspaper). Then in the middle of your vacation a moving truck will pull up, men in moving suits will get out -- complete with paperwork mind you --and strip your house clean.

Most often though "point men" for Pro operations work for services that come into your house (like carpet cleaners and painters). Under the guise of workers, they survey the location for valuables. Then they, or their cohorts, come back and strip the place. This is another reason why, when dealing with contract services, you need to make sure the service is licensed and bonded. Although more expensive bonded companies do background check on workers. Also, even if a company is licensed make sure that they don't subcontract work out to other unlicensed and unbonded contractors. As many companies do this in order to save employee costs and increase their profit margin. The van that pulls up to do the job should have the company name on it and NOT just a plain white work truck.

As stated though, these kinds of professionals are rare. What you are more likely to encounter are the first three. Fortunately, many of the measures that work against one work to deter the others. Return to top of page

It Takes A Thief
The legal weenies at The Discovery Channel wouldn't allow their computer department to make a banner so we could direct you to this show's Web site, but agreed to a text link. Problem with text links, we can say what we want. That point aside, we categorically recommend the show It Takes A Thief  week day afternoons on the Discovery Channel (USA). Check your local cable listings. Jon and Matt are ex-burglars who demonstrate exactly how fast and effectively a "prowler" can enter, loot and trash your house. Pictures are worth a thousand words. Pay close attention to the explanations and details that they give regarding how burglars work, what they are looking for and how much they can get for items -- especially regarding identity or banking.

Building a Safe Room
For well under $500 you can build a room in your home that in case someone does break-in you can flee to and remain safe until the police arrive. Building a safe room is cheap, easy and can be done in a day.

Home Security Tips

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1 When we talk about "egg shell" security systems we are talking about the sort of security measures that honest people look at and think that because it would stop them, it would stop a criminal. These are one level measures that, like an eggshell, look hard but are easily broken. For example a simple lock on a door is an egg shell security system. It only takes a kick or shoulder slam to get through it. Furthermore, such a measure neither delays the criminal or alerts authorities when broken through. On the other hand a reinforced, multi-locked door with an active alarm system does meet the delay and alert criteria. Return to text

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