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Home Security: The Basics

Expert Chris McGoey offers simple, common-sense advice for home security against burglary and intrusion

A home burglary occurs somewhere in the U.S. every 15.4 seconds, according to the FBI, making it the most common home security threat, by far. To avoid becoming a victim, it is important to first gain an understanding of the crime.

Despite our increasingly high-tech existence, the world of home intrusion hasn't evolved much in the past couple of decades. The majority of home and apartment burglaries occur during the daytime, when most people are away at work or school. Most occur in the summer months of July and August, while the fewest occur in February. Burglaries are committed most often by young males under 25  looking for items that are small, expensive and can easily be converted to cash. Favorite items are cash, jewelry, guns, watches, laptop computers, music CDs and video DVDs, DVD players and video game machines.

Statistics show that 70% of the burglars use some amount of force to enter a dwelling, but their preference is to gain easy access through an open door or window. Ordinary household tools like screwdrivers, channel-lock pliers and small pry bars are commonly used. These crimes continue to flourish because police arrest only about 13% of all reported burglaries and rarely catch the thief in the act.

Although home burglaries may seem random in occurrence, they actually involve a selection process. The burglar chooses an unoccupied home with the easiest access, the greatest amount of cover and with the best escape routes.

Here is a prioritized list of six home security considerations to minimize your burglary risk.

1. Doors and Locks

Make your home more difficult to enter, as  burglars are more likely to bypass homes that require too much effort to break into or  more skill and tools than they possess. Most burglars enter via the front, back or garage doors. Experienced burglars know that the garage door is usually the weakest point of entry, followed by the back door. The garage and back doors also provide the most cover.

The most common way used to force entry through a door with a wooden jamb is to simply kick it open. The weakest point is almost always the lock strike plate that holds the latch or lock bolt in place, followed by a glass-paneled door.

The average door strike plate is secured only by a lightweight, soft-wood doorjamb molding, which is often tacked onto the door frame and can be torn away with a firm kick. Because of this construction flaw, it makes sense to upgrade to a readily available, four-screw, heavy-duty, high-security strike plate. Install this heavy-duty strike plate using three-inch wood screws to cut deep into the door frame stud. Use these longer screws in the knob lock strike plate as well, and use at least one long screw in each door hinge. This simple home security step alone will deter or prevent most through-the-door forced entries.

" Use a solid core or metal door for all entrance points.

" Use a heavy-duty deadbolt lock with a one-inch throw bolt.

" Use a heavy-duty knob-in-lock set with a dead-latch mechanism.

" Use a heavy-duty, four-screw strike plate with three-inch screws to penetrate into a wooden door frame.

" Use a wide-angle 160° peephole mounted no higher than 58 inches.

2. Sliding-Glass Patio Doors

Sliding glass doors are secured by latches—a home security weak point—not locks. They are vulnerable to being forced open from the outside because of these inherently defective latch mechanisms. This can be easily prevented by inserting a wooden dowel or stick into the track, thus preventing or limiting movement. Other blocking tools include  metal fold-down blocking devices, called "charley bars," and various track-blockers that can be screwed down.

The blocking devices described above solve half the equation. Older sliding-glass doors can be lifted up and off their track,  thereby defeating the latch mechanism. To prevent lifting, you need to keep the door rollers in good condition and properly adjusted. You can also install anti-lift devices such as a pin that extends through both the sliding and fixed portion of the door. There are also numerous locking and blocking devices available that will prevent a sliding door from being lifted or forced horizontally. Place highly visible decals on the glass door near the latch mechanism that indicates an alarm system, a dog or neighborhood watch operation is in place. 

" Use a secondary blocking device on all sliding glass doors.

" Keep the latch mechanism in good condition and properly adjusted.

" Keep sliding door rollers in good condition and properly adjusted.

" Use anti-lift devices such as through-the-door pins or upper track screws.

" Use decals indicating alarm, dog or neighborhood watch organizations.

3. Windows

An open window, visible from the street or alley, may be the sole reason for your home to be selected by a burglar. While ground-floor windows are more susceptible to break-ins for obvious reasons, upper floor windows become attractive if they can be accessed from a stairway, tree, fence or balcony. Windows have latches, not locks, and therefore should have secondary blocking devices to prevent sliding them open from the outside. Inexpensive wooden dowels and sticks work well for horizontal sliding windows, and through-the-frame pins are effective for vertical sliding windows. For ventilation, block the window open no more than six inches, and make sure no one can reach in from the outside and remove the blocking device or reach through and unlock the door.

In sleeping rooms, these window-blocking devices should be capable of being removed easily from the inside to comply with fire codes. Like sliding glass doors, anti-lift devices are necessary for ground-level and accessible aluminum windows that slide horizontally. The least expensive and easiest method is to install screws halfway into the upper track of the movable glass panel to prevent it from being lifted out in the closed position.

To prevent entry through glass, a homeowner can install clear plastic laminate film that is strong enough to stop a bullet. It applies just like window tinting and is very effective in delaying entry.

" Secure all accessible windows with secondary blocking devices.

" Block accessible windows open no more than six-inches for ventilation.

" Make sure someone cannot reach through an open window and unlock the door.

" Make sure someone cannot reach inside and remove the blocking device.

" Use anti-lift devices to prevent window from being lifted out.

" Apply plastic laminate film to accessible windows.

" Use crime prevention or alarm decals on ground-accessible windows.

4. Alarm Systems

Alarm systems definitely have a place in a home security plan, but they are most effective when used with deterrent warning signs and decals.  The risk of not displaying a sign or decal is that the burglar could break a window or door and grab a few quick items before the police could respond vs. being deterred by the sign all together. It makes matters worse if you write your alarm passcode on or near the alarm keypad so the burglars can use it.

Alarm systems need to be properly installed and maintained. All systems should have an audible horn or bell that is programmed to reset automatically after 30 seconds so that neighbors dont have to hear it for hours, after the criminal is long gone.

If you use a central station to monitor your alarm, make sure your response call list is up to date. Because home alarms, like car alarms, are generally ignored, its important to establish and nurtur a neighborhood watch system. It is not unusual to have a neighbor wait for the police, allow them inside for an inspection and secure the residence. A good neighbor can also call the glass company or locksmith to repair any damage, if pre-authorized by you.

" Alarm systems are effective deterrents with visible signage.

" Alarm systems to be properly installed, programmed, and maintained.

" Alarm systems need to have an audible horn or bell to be effective.

" Make sure your alarm response call list is up to date.

" Instruct your neighbors on how to respond to an alarm bell.

5. Be a Good Neighbor

A neighborhood watch system is easy to establish, simply by getting to know your neighbors on either side of your home, as well as directly across the street. By inviting neighbors into your home, communicating often and establishing trust, you engender whats called territoriality, which means that neighbors take ownership and responsibility for what occurs in their mini-neighborhood. This concept works in both single-family homes and on apartment properties.

In a neighborhood-watch community, neighbors keep watch on each others homes, especially when someone is away.  They report suspicious activity;  ensure the continuation of normal services like lawn care;  pick up  mail; and  inspect the outside or inside of each others homes periodically to see that all is well.

Allowing a neighbor to have a key solves the problem of hiding a key outside the door. Experienced burglars know to look for hidden keys in planter boxes, under doormats and above the ledge. Requiring a service vendor to ask your neighbor for the house key will send a powerful message that someone is watching.

The greatest barrier to establishing this level of neighborhood participation is taking the first step. You can get help by calling your local crime prevention unit at the police department, which may employ a  neighborhood watch coordinator.

" Get to know all your adjacent neighbors.

" Invite them into your home and establish trust.

" Agree to watch out for each other's home.

" Do small tasks for each other to improve territoriality.

" While on vacation, pick up newspapers, and flyers.

" Offer to occasionally park your car in their driveway.

" Return the favor and communicate often.

6. Light Timers

Interior lighting is necessary to show signs of occupancy and activity inside a residence at night. A darkened home night after night sends the message that you are away on vacation. Light timers are inexpensive and can be found everywhere. They should be used on a daily basis, not just when youre away. In this way, you set up a routine that your neighbors can observe and will allow them to become suspicious when your normally lighted home becomes dark.

Typically, you want to use light timers near the front and back windows with the curtains closed. The pattern of lights turning on and off should simulate actual occupancy. Its also comforting not to have to enter a dark residence when you return home. The same light timers can be used to turn on radios or televisions to further enhance the illusion of occupancy.

Exterior lighting is also very important. It becomes critical if you must park in a common-area parking lot or underground garage and need to walk to your front door. The purpose of good lighting is to allow you to see if a threat is lurking in your path. Exterior lighting needs to be bright enough for you to see 100 feet without glare, and it helps if you can identify colors. Good lighting is a deterrent to criminals because they don't want to be seen or identified.

Another important area to be well-lighted is the perimeter of your home or apartment, especially at the entryway. Exterior lighting on the front of a property should always be on a timer to establish a routine and the appearance of occupancy at all times. Common-area lighting on apartment properties should also be on a timer or photo-cell to turn on at dusk and off at dawn. The practice of leaving the garage or porch lights turned on all day on a single family home is a dead giveaway that you are out of town. Security lights with infra-red motion sensors are relatively inexpensive and can easily replace an exterior porch light or side door light on single-family homes. The heat-motion sensor can be adjusted to detect body heat and can be programmed to reset after one minute. These security lights are highly recommended for single-family homes.

" Use interior light timers to establish a pattern of occupancy.

" Exterior lighting should allow 100 feet of visibility.

" Use good lighting along the pathway and at your door.

" Use light timers or photo-cells to turn on/off lights automatically.

" Use infra-red motion sensor lights on the rear of single-family homes.

Burglars are not high-tech criminals. Just a few measures of deterrence can keep you from becoming a victim of this all-too-common crime. A combination of high-quality door and window barriers, well-thought-out alarm systems, watchful neighbors and lighting systems can keep your from becoming an intrusion target. ##

Chris E McGoey, CPP, CSP, CAM, is an experienced security consultant. Contact him or find more advice at his website, www.crimedoctor.com

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