Property: Disturb the burglar

Householders can combat thieves by exploiting advances in technology
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The Independent Online
This is the time of year when the burglar makes hay while the sun doesn't shine. The long hours of darkness give the swag men ample scope - with a consequent steep rise in the number of home break-ins - while Christmas provides the goods worth stealing.

But this year the burglar's wiles will be severely tested by poachers turned gamekeepers. A number of police forces are using convicted thieves to educate householders about the methods used to gain entry.

Star of the going-straight show is a burglar serving five years in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, who was recently let out for a day to accompany police officers on their beat and "highlight opportunities which a law-abiding householder might not notice". It was all part of Papa (Proactive Preventative Action), in which "opportunities for crime" are identified before a crime is committed. So a bobby will scour properties with the eyes of a burglar, looking for open windows and insecure doors, and then inform the owner. So far, 545 houses have been identified in this way - 545 crimes prevented, local police believe.

Kent Police and the insurer Norwich Union have teamed up with three former thieves - Gary, Patrick and Paul - to make a video called "Beat the Burglar", in which they discuss how they went about their trade. It provides householders with tips on how to prevent a burglary, and it can be borrowed from your local crime prevention officer.

But it's not only thieves who threaten the livelihood of today's burglar. Technology is making rapid advances, so that every house has the potential to become a mini Fort Knox.

If the occupier is away, modern security systems can be programmed to draw and open the curtains. Timer switches can turn lights on and off in different parts of the house. And lock-fastened windows will make entry harder. Some insist - Patrick in "Beating the Burglar", for example - that double-glazing is the biggest deterrent, but some crime-prevention experts say a screwdriver can prize this softer kind of glass away from the frames more easily than it can normal glass. Insurers almost demand that window locks be installed in urban areas, and people in other areas who have them will usually get a discount.

It is hard to better the deterrent effect of a burglar alarm that works. But thieves are adept at spotting a cheap model, which is invariably turned off because of frequent false alarms. Dummy alarms (boxes with nothing in them retailing at about pounds 20) can only put a burglar off if they are positioned correctly. They should mimic a real alarm (pounds 350 upwards) by being attached to the house under the eaves to make it look as if the wiring is going into the loft. A real giveaway is the alarm clinging to the side of the house between the ground and first floors - a tell- tale sign that it has no electrics inside.

Sophisticated alarms - which ring when a magnetic contact in the door is broken or when a sensor beam in the house is disturbed - are linked to a 24-hour central control unit. These privately owned monitoring stations can detect through homeowners' individual codes where a break-in has occurred, and inform the local police.

If all else fails, it may be worth "marking" valuable items. Microdots containing the owner's personal code are applied with a lipstick-sized dispenser to any item, never to be erased. The pin number is recorded on a central file which carries the owner's name, address and phone number. If the police recover stolen property that has been marked in this way, they can trace the owners.

A house which has this system installed will display labels in windows, so any thief will know items have been secured. In addition, the black market value of the property will be reduced.

"This lowers the chances of being done over by the professional thief," said Nicholas Dearsley, managing director of Alpha Scientific, which makes the microdotting system. "But it won't stop the opportunistic drug user who'll flog the item down the pub within 10 minutes."

Every road improvement leads to a corresponding rise in the number of burglaries of country properties in the surrounding area, according to James Duffell, of the Norwich Union. "A thief from London will drive no more than one and a half hours - one and a quarter on the main road and a quarter of an hour on a side road. There is a corridor of crime along the arterial routes off the A11, for example. As the A11 is upgraded, step-by-step we have seen the London criminals edge further north."

Somewhat bizarrely, local planning authorities are being blamed for a rise in the theft of second-hand fabric and fixtures. When a house is being renovated, many councils require old materials to be used. This, says the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, has led to more grand piles being ransacked for their fireplaces, staircases, floors, panelling and roofs. To prevent this, it is encouraging the use of new, good-quality hand-made materials.

"Slowly, with technology and with more sophisticated communication with groups like Neighbourhood Watch, we are winning," said a police spokesman.

"The thief is beginning to lag behind the technology."

THE LOWDOWN ON BURGLARY

q Don't have a high hedge in front of the house.

q Burglars will often pose as interviewers, armed with a clipboard. Look out, too, for the man with a plastic can wanting to fill up his car radiator.

q The worst time for break-ins is not 2am, but 4pm when the kids are being collected from school.

q If you're going away, stop papers, milk and post arriving. Also tell trustworthy neighbours and police.

q Fix a reliable burglar alarm and window locks.

q Get a dog that barks.

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