Burglary can be a financially and psychologically devastating event for a family. One way to help protect your property against crime is to get into the mind of a burglar.
Research conducted by forensic psychologist Dr Claire Nee of the University of Portsmouth has delved into the psyche of burglars to understand what they look for when it comes to burgling your home.
To help gain an insight into how householders can protect their homes from burglary, Moneywise participated in Dr Nee’s burglary simulation in partnership with Churchill Insurance. Here’s what we found out.
1. Very few burglaries are opportunistic
Very few burglars are opportunistic. Instead, many will be regularly scanning and analysing neighbourhoods and environments they encounter for future opportunities.
Dr Nee says: “Very few burglars are what we would call properly impulsive or indiscriminate, which is what we normally mean by opportunistic. The majority of burglars have a lot of knowledge in their heads; we call them cognitive schemers. They have lots of ‘recipes’ about how to commit different burglaries. They pick up the cues of vulnerable areas during their everyday activities. They’re constantly scanning.
“They’ll be thinking ‘Oh, that looks quiet down that road – it might be a good place for the day time’ or ‘I might come back here in the evening’. They’re using things like where the house is positioned on the street, or how many people they can be seen by.”
Burglars are far more likely to target isolated houses or end of terraces. According to the study, it is very rare for a burglar to try to gain entry from the front of the house, as the likelihood of being spotted is much higher. Burglars will often knock on the front door to see if anyone is home, before heading around the back to try to gain entry. Not only is an empty house an easier target, but the majority of burglars are aware of the implications of being disturbed in the course of a burglary as this raises the criminal implications to aggravated burglary, which carries much stiffer sentences.
2. It’s obvious, but don’t leave doors or windows open if you’re out
Staggeringly, Dr Nee says nearly half the time the burglars she has worked with report accessing a property through an open door or window: “How easy it is to physically get in? Usually it’s not too difficult, about 50% of the time, people just leave somewhere open. Burglars often say that households buy expensive security devices but leave a window open or forget to switch on the alarm.”
3. Smaller possessions are what burglars target
Contrary to popular belief, the items burglars most commonly target are not high value items, such as flat screen TVs and desktop computers, as these often have cables that are tedious to remove and are simply too large to steal.
Instead, most burglars target items that are easy to carry or put into pockets, such as jewellery, passports, wallets, phones, tablets and laptop computers. According to the study, having tracking software such as “Find my iPhone” on iOS and “Find Device” on Android makes little difference in deterring theft as burglars will switch off devices straight away. The burglar will then deliver the device to a middleman who wipes it of the owner’s information.
Dr Nee asked non-burglars and burglars to take part in her computerised burglary simulation. She says: “Our research showed that the non-burglars went around and picked up the big TVs or PCs, whereas a burglar probably wouldn’t take that. Burglars really don’t like cables.”
In many cases the burglars will steal thousands of pounds worth of possessions, but will generally only receive hundreds of pounds in return for their efforts. According to Dr Nee, it is highly unlikely the burglar will sell any of the stolen items online on sites such as eBay or Gumtree as generally burglars have pre-arranged middlemen to buy stolen goods or rely on quick-sale no-questions-asked pawn shops.
4. Burglars tend to avoid kitchens, bathrooms and children’s bedrooms
The research also shed fascinating light onto the way in which burglars analyse their environment and make decisions once inside a property. For instance, burglars tend to make sure a house is empty before moving to the furthest destination from their point of entry and systematically making their way through the house back to where they came in from.
The burglar will move through the house checking drawers and cupboards for valuable items with thoroughness. In many cases, burglars already know where to look as many householders follow the same tendencies when it comes to hiding items, such as valuable jewellery and passports, in filing cabinets.
Dr Nee says on average, burglars reported spending as little as eight minutes searching through a house. “Burglars are very fast, they don’t want to spend a long time in there, but they just know very quickly where high value areas are. They’ll go there and get the important stuff.”
When it comes to places in the house that burglars avoid, kitchens and bathrooms tend to be ignored as householders don’t put items of value in these rooms. Also, interestingly, it seems many burglars are not completely devoid of a moral code, as the majority say they wouldn’t enter a child’s room because it is “morally wrong”.
According to Dr Nee: “They really didn’t like going into children’s bedrooms. In the past, we knew they didn’t go into children’s bedrooms, but we thought it was just because they wouldn’t think there was much in there, but nearly every one of them said ‘That’s a child’s room - that’s the no-go area’.
“Burglars don’t go in the bathroom either. You can’t store all your electronic goods in the bathroom cabinet, but we need to think about trying to be less obvious. The burglar will be on this habitual automatic route and if the stuff isn’t there, one of things they really don’t like is spending too long, they’ll just get more and more twitchy.”
This provides householders with an insight into the criminal mind, and clues as to how to protect their homes and belongings. It may be wise to store items of value in children’s rooms while you are on holiday, or even in a box in the bathroom.
5. Use light timers to discourage entry
However, Dr Nee says the best thing homeowners can do to protect their belongings is to discourage entry in the first place: “We don’t want to make life inconvenient for householders because of burglars but at the same time I think there is a leap to be made by householders to reduce risk.”
Making a house appear occupied with light timers, having a neighbour come round and check the property, using motion sensor-activated outdoor lights and other simple deterrents make a property too high a risk for a burglar to try.
Martin Scott, head of Churchill Home Insurance, explains: “Burglary is one of the most prevalent and invasive crimes householders face. While burglars often choose properties at random, there are inexpensive practical steps we can all take to make our homes less of a target.
“One of the most common things people forget is to make their home look occupied while they are away. This may be by asking people to house sit or by setting up timers for lights and sounds to fake occupancy. Another thing to reduce your risk is to appraise your home as if through the eyes of a burglar.
“Check whether you have any easy access points, through the rear or side of the property and if you do, make these secure. If your home provides cover with trees, a high wall or fence for a burglar trying to break in, install security lights as these can be an effective deterrent.
“Finally, keep your valuables out of sight. If you have high value, portable electronics, cash, jewellery or identity documents in clear view of a window a burglar knows exactly where to steal them from. If everything is hidden, a burglar may decide that it isn’t worth the time searching for items and move on.”
My burglary simulation experience
I participated in Dr Nee’s and Churchill’s “burglary simulation” to better understand how burglars operate and gain insights into how households can better protect their possessions.
Using computer simulations, Dr Nee conducted research with 55 convicted burglars serving time in prison, along with 50 offenders who had committed other crimes. She also used a control group of non-offenders to compare the variations in behaviour between normal people and ‘professional’ burglars.
Of the simulation, Dr Nee says: “There’s nothing better than actually redoing it because burglars think of things they haven’t thought of before interviewing them. You have a lot more accurate and rich data about where they go to in the environment and what they consider vulnerable. We’ve known for years that they use cues in the environment automatically.
“We don’t want households to change their behaviour completely. We want to leave our possessions in a convenient place for us, to go about our business, but we are too predictable, we do leave opportunity absolutely everywhere. There are some small things we can do to make our properties look less attractive first of all and then if someone does get inside maybe not find possessions exactly where they are expecting it.”
Of my effort using the burglary simulation, which you can watch below, Dr Nee comments: “You were probably the best person we’ve had this morning, in the sense that you actually went around the back of the property! In most studies we do, people just go in the front door which most burglars never do, they nearly always go in the end of terraces and in the rear of the house, especially if you’ve got a nice lane at the back you can just walk down and scope the environment with.
“You did choose a mid-terrace though. Burglars are much more likely to take the ends of terraces because it is so much quicker to get out of. If they have time they might do the end of terrace and then the second one.
“A burglar would make more checks for occupancy because they’d really prefer that there was no one there. That’s not to say that some burglars wouldn’t go in in the dead of night when someone’s asleep because then they can get quite a few things downstairs.”
Watch the video below to see me participate in the burglary simulation.