According to preliminary crime statistics released earlier this year by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Press Office, burglaries declined a full 6% during the first six months of 1996. In 1995, the agency reported that burglary rates were lower than in any other year in the past two decades. There’s no doubt that the decrease is good news for Americans, but if you’ve recently separated or divorced, the figures alone may not be completely reassuring.
For people in transition, being “home alone” takes on a whole new significance. “When people feel that they’ve been betrayed by someone they were very close to, it can’t help but spill over to their surroundings,” explains Tamar Lynn, assistant director of the Westside Crime Prevention Program (WCPP), a not-for-profit community organization serving Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Once, there were two of you to stand sentinel over your home. Now there’s just you. Your emotional foundation has been rocked, and you can’t help but feel vulnerable. And whether the crime rate has gone up or down really doesn’t matter if you’re a victim of a burglary, adds Lynn. “For you, the crime rate just went up 100%.”
Fortunately, there are many steps that you can take to reduce the risk of home invasion. Whether you choose to implement simple, low-cost security measures or to install a sophisticated security system, the key to prevention is to be proactive. “Do whatever you need to do to feel comfortable,” stresses Officer Jessica Corey, a crime prevention specialist with the New York Police Department. “Be alert about your surroundings, trust your instincts, and — importantly — take the time to be safe.”
Here are some tips from police, crime prevention agencies, and industry experts that can help you reduce any risks to yourself, your family, and your property.
Be “Right Neighborly”
It’s only natural that you value your privacy right now, but getting to know your neighbors is an important step in crime prevention. That “Nosy Parker” across the street or down the hall could prove to be a valuable ally. “Anytime people are looking out for one another, it’s a positive thing,” says Officer Corey. Remember: getting to know some of your neighbors doesn’t mean that you have to provide them with intimate details about your separation or divorce. Try to be cognizant of your neighbors’ comings and goings. You might also consider exchanging telephone numbers with your immediate neighbors.
Contact the Crime Prevention Department of your local police precinct for information about joining or starting a Neighborhood Watch. All New York City precincts offer free security surveys. A Crime Prevention Officer will inspect your apartment or home and identify its weak points (for example, a rotting door frame, poor choice of lock, etc.). Crime Prevention lectures can also be arranged through local New York City precincts for your tenant association, Neighborhood Watch, or any other type of group.
If considering a move to a new neighborhood, Lynn suggests that you first take the time to “get a feel” for the area. “Walk around at different times of the day — the first time in daylight hours, then in the early evening,” she says. We all have different comfort levels — so trust your instincts. How does the foot traffic differ at night from daytime hours? How many businesses remain open in the evening? What kind of business do they conduct? Are there people loitering on the corners? The Crime Prevention Unit at your local precinct will also be able to help, by providing you with brochures, helpful hints, and insider information about the potential for crime in the neighborhood.
See your Home through a Burglar’s Eyes
If you’re selling your home, “curb appeal” is a good thing. But if you’re concerned about home security, you won’t want your home to shine so brightly that it attracts the attention of burglars. Keep expensive gardening tools, bicycles, lawn mowers, and automotive accessories under lock and key in your garage or shed.
Landscape design is also important. Shrubs, statuary, hedges, and trees can be very effective hiding places for burglars. They can also obstruct your house from the view of patrolling police or neighbors. Is your house an easy mark? Try this simple exercise. Stand across the street from your home. Can you clearly see your windows and doors? If not, trim back trees or shrubs or move them to another part of your property. By their very nature, privacy fences can also pose problems. They not only block your neighbor’s view of the house, they also block their view of burglars! House numbers should be clearly visible so that police can respond quickly to a call for help. They should be large (at least six inches high), illuminated at night, and, if possible, visible from both front and back of the property. The New York Police Department recommends lighting the perimeter of your house with enough light to see a silhouette. Pay special attention to lighting door areas; be sure you have a porch light. Motion detector lights are an effective security device, and they also help light the way, should you have forgotten to leave the lights on for yourself when you left home.
A high percentage of break-ins are actually walk-ins. The message from police: don’t make it easy for the burglar by leaving doors and windows unlocked. Whether you’re home, or just going out to the store for a minute, always lock your doors and windows. If it’s too hot in the summertime to be locked inside your own home, be sure you’ve locked your screen door and window screens.
Locks with key holes in the knob are not reliable as they can be easily forced. Police departments and security professionals recommend dead-bolt locks with a one-inch throw bolt or a heavy duty drop-bolt lock. Use a licensed locksmith, and install a pick-resistant cylinder with protective guard plate. It’s a good idea to install a second lock, too. Consider who will be using the door so that it’s situated at the appropriate height. The NYC Building Code prohibits the installation of double cylinder locks — those that require the use of a key on both sides of the door. The locks pose a potential risk should fire break out and are not recommended by the New York Police Department for use in single family dwellings.
Security experts recommend that you change locks when you move into a new apartment or house. You should also change them if you’ve ever lost keys, or if you’re uncertain about the number of duplicates that have been distributed to others. Never hide keys outside your home or apartment, no matter how good you think the hiding place is. Burglars are home-owners, too, and have very good instincts when it comes to finding keys.
When the New York Police Department conducts a security survey, they check both the door and the door frame. All exterior doors should be either metal or solid wood core. The hinges must be on the inside of the door, and the frames should be checked for rot. Be sure that your peephole affords you a wide-angle, peripheral view of the hallway or your front step — and use it before you open the door to anyone.
Most windows can be pinned for security in partially or fully-closed positions. Your local police precinct can provide you with more information about pinning techniques. Basement windows should be secured with grilles or bars with a safety latch for inside opening. Sliding windows and patio doors represent another challenge: be sure to secure either with self-tapping screws in the upper track that allow the door/window to slide into place, or by placing a piece of wood into the bottom track to protect against lateral force.
Create a “Safe Room”
If personal safety is an issue, or if you have a past history of physical abuse or violence, consider creating a “safe room” in your home or apartment. Be sure that the door to the room has the same safety features as your external doors and that you keep a telephone or cell phone inside the room.
There are several simple but effective measures you can take to reduce the risk of theft or assault if you live in an apartment building. When parking in an underground lot, try to park near an elevator or staircase. Officer Corey also recommends that you leave your car either under a light or in a well-lit, high-traffic area. “If you have a car with bucket seats, leave the back of the driver’s seat folded forward. When you return to your car, you’ll have a clear view of the backseat,” she says.
Remove all of your belongings from your car. Some people even leave the glove compartment open to show thieves that there’s nothing inside. If car theft is a problem in your area, you might want consider protecting your vehicle with the Club or a car alarm. And be sure to pull out your apartment keys from your purse, jacket, or attache case before you leave the safety of your car.
Elevators can be particularly intimidating for apartment dwellers. Never enter an elevator if the occupant looks suspicious. Trust your instincts, urges Officer Corey. “Many people worry about offending the occupant,” she says. “If that concerns you, tell them that you forgot your mail, or that you’re waiting for a friend.” Many of us have had an elevator mysteriously deliver us to the basement of a building instead of to our chosen floor. This can be a potentially dangerous scenario. Elevators can be “cleared” through the following procedure, according to Officer Corey: Step inside the empty elevator and press the basement button. Step back out of the elevator and into the hallway. Wait until the elevator begins its descent, then press the up bottom. The elevator will clear itself and return to your floor. Here are some other apartment safety tips:
- Never hold the lobby door open for a stranger or open it if they see you and knock. You may be unwittingly allowing a burglar access to your building and endangering all of your fellow tenants.
- List your last name and first initial only on the tenant directory.
- Use your intercom and door release wisely. Don’t buzz anyone into the building unless you know them.
- Be sure to extend security measures out onto your terrace.
- If you live on a top floor, make sure that the door to the roof is closed. ¥ Secure air conditioners so that they cannot be pushed in or pulled out of the window or wall.
- Report suspicious behavior and/or persons to the superintendent or police. Keep your superintendent’s phone number handy.
Coming and Going
Get to know which businesses in your neighborhood are open 24 hours a day, advises Officer Corey. Plan your route home, and if you sense that someone is following you home, head for the store or bar that you know to be open. If a friend is giving you a ride home, ask them to wait until you’re safely within the house. Have your keys ready before you get to the door.
If you’re going out and suspect someone is watching you, say goodbye to the house. “You may feel a little silly, but tell your house you’ll be right back, or that you’re just going out to get some milk,” says Corey. The idea is that would-be burglars will assume that you’re talking to someone inside the house.
Should you arrive home and find your door open or discover other signs of a break-in, do not go inside. Call 911 from a pay phone or from a neighbor’s house and ask police to meet you.
Telephone Listings and Answering Machines/Voice Mail
If your number is listed, use only your last name and first initial. Never tell callers that you are away or on vacation: instead, say that you cannot come to the phone. If you live alone, use “we” instead of “I.” If you’re concerned about your number appearing on someone’s call display, subscribe to Nynex’s All Call Blocking service to prevent the use of call return. If you’re being harassed by telephone, call the phone company or make a police report. Consider an unlisted phone number; it may be worth the expense for the peace of mind it can bring. Contact your service provider for details about what features they offer to enhance your security.
When you’re Away
According to the FBI, the majority of burglaries occur in July and August. Give yourself some peace of mind while you’re on vacation by following these precautions:
- Check all doors and windows before you leave and make sure that garage is securely locked.
- Leave curtains and blinds open.
- Cancel deliveries, or have a trusted neighbor or friend pick up mail and newspapers.
- Consider asking neighbors to use your garbage cans.
- Turn down the volume on your phones. ¥ Use clock timers to turn on lights, TVs, and radios. Stagger the times, or use the “random” setting to turn things on and off at irregular intervals.
- Arrange for yard maintenance, such as lawn mowing or snow shoveling.
- Leave a radio on.
- Keep a car parked in the driveway while you’re away.
You may wish to supplement these tips with more sophisticated security measures. The range of options is practically limitless — from alarms, wireless systems, monitoring services, and home safes to security guards, closed circuit television, and dogs. But before you turn your home into a Fort Knox, it’s important to understand your needs Ñ and to anticipate possible problems. Pete Venturini, president of Protective Measures, a security firm located in Fairfield, NJ suggests that the best way to start is to ask for referrals from family and friends. Then sit down with a security specialist and go over your needs together. “There are so many companies out there that it can be overwhelming,” he says. “Some firms promise a lot and deliver very little. Others may lock you into a service contract that gives you very few options should you not like their system or service.” It’s also helpful to get a number of quotes. Once you decide on a firm, check the Better Business Bureau to ensure that there are no outstanding complaints against the company.
While safety deposit boxes are a good idea for storing documents and valuables you don’t need to access on a regular basis, many people are considering a home safe for storing valuables. There are a few important points to consider when choosing a safe, says Richard Krasilovsky, president of the Empire Safe Company in New York City. “Many people buy the wrong kind of safe,” he says. “They’re looking for burglary protection but buy one for fire protection instead.” While some safes offer both fire and burglary protection, if you’re looking to secure your valuables, weight is a key consideration. Look for a safe that weighs at least 500 pounds. It should have a digital lock and be of a commercial quality but streamlined for the home. For easy day-to-day access, safes are installed in closets; if immediate access is not an issue, they can be installed out of sight in a basement. According to Krasilovsky, the usual rule of thumb when buying a safe is to spend between 3% to 10% of the perceived value of your possessions. The average customer spends $900 or more on a safe to protect goods worth $10,000 to $15,000.
Burglary is a crime of opportunity. Make that opportunity as non-existent as possible, without making yourself crazy, advises Tamar Lynn. “It’s a cyclical thing,” she says. “Taking security seriously makes you feel safer, so you are safer.”
When Jane Zatylny first moved to the country, she thought she’d be immune to break-ins. But when a friend’s home was burglarized, she realized that crime can happen anywhere, even in a rural setting. “We’ve now taken steps to make our property more secure,” she says. “It just makes sense to do what you can to reduce the risk of theft.”