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Think like a thief: how not to get burgled, according to science

If you live in the UK, you have about a 1% chance of getting burgled in any given year.

That might sound small, but considering the average UK citizen now lives to see 80, it actually means you have a 4 in 5 chance of being burgled at some point in your life (counting from the day you’re born). You’re four times more likely to be burgled than not in an average lifetime, assuming the odds stay roughly the same throughout.

And it can be an enormously distressing experience. It’s easy to focus on the financial cost of a burglary – the average UK victim loses about £3000 - but arguably far worse is the psychological impact. Our homes are our sanctuaries; we need to feel like they’re safe spaces. We’re driven by six million years of evolution to seek out places where we can rest and recuperate, because to put it bluntly, anyone who didn’t get eaten by bears and dropped out of the gene pool a long time ago.

A burglary is a very direct violation of this imperative. When a stranger enters your home, maybe by force, and perhaps while you and your family are asleep in your beds… you suddenly become acutely aware that your home is not quite the safe haven you imagined. In the aftermath, depression, anxiety and panic attacks are common; 34% of victims develop insomnia, 30% suffer from PTSD, and 40% develop lasting autophobia (fear of being alone). 60% report “never feeling safe at home again” and 13% even have to move house afterwards. People gain weight and lose jobs and even get divorced because of it. It’s a really harmful, traumatic thing.

But when we say “you have a 1% chance of being burgled every year”, that’s really not the whole story.

It implies that burglaries are random, and that’s not true. Burglars are humans and humans employ decision-making tactics.

And those tactics are surprisingly well-documented, because law enforcement agencies, security contractors and various flavours of curious academic all spend enormous amounts of time and money studying them. The police have an active interest in tracking, for example, whether security systems actually deter burglars, or whether they in fact signal that there is something inside worth stealing. Burglars themselves frequently spill their secrets to law enforcement agencies in return for more lenient sentencing. They even manage to convince some to go “white-hat” and join the police force as consultants, because as the old saying goes, “the best way to catch a thief is to use another thief” (fun fact, we’ve been saying that since the 3rd Century BC).

So in this article, we’re going to encourage you to think like a thief and view your property through their eyes. We’re going to explore how burglars select their victims and what you can do to signal to them that you are not a good target. We’ll look at simple actions and behaviours you can adopt to improve your chances of being the 1 person in 5 who doesn’t get burgled, and debunk a few persistent myths along the way. So, let’s jump in.

Think like a thief.

With very few exceptions, burglars do not want to get caught. There are documented cases of people deliberately getting themselves sent to jail so they can smuggle contraband, escape life on the streets, or apparently, quit smoking - but those are very much the exception. Burglary is what we call an acquisitive crime: the goal is to acquire things, like money or valuables, and then escape so those things can be sold or used.

As a result, burglars typically don’t just look for valuables. They look for “soft” targets; ones that appear to prevent a low risk of being captured or interrupted during the crime, and specifically, those that appear to have good risk/reward ratio (how does the perceived security risk weigh up against the perceived spoils?).

That’s why the police and serious security contractors talk a lot about something called “target hardening”. The objective is not to make your property completely impossible to break into, because that isn’t realistically possible. The idea is more to make it really, really unattractive and awkward, until the perceived risk falls way out of line with the perceived reward and the perpetrator is successfully deterred.

Burglars are just people, so they all have their own quirks, idiosyncrasies and individual levels of competence. There are no hard and fast rules. But we have studied enough criminals over the years to start seeing patterns. When interviewing burglars, one theme that comes up time and time again is how they select targets based on “surveillability, accessibility, security and occupancy”. How easily can they see the risks and rewards of a property; how easy is it to get in and out, and what are the chances of being confronted while they do? Effective target hardening therefore starts with making those things more difficult.

Surveillability

Surveillability refers to both the ease with which a would-be burglar can look into the property to check for valuables or occupants, and also how visible the burglar is while conducting that evaluation. Studies show good surveillability practice is consistently a top-two deterrent (above even factors like security systems), and prove that burglaries occur at much higher rates in properties with poor surveillability practice.

Intuitively, you might think installing a tall fence all around your perimeter would increase your overall security. But a tall fence also provides cover for a burglar to hide behind while they check out the property or work to open a door or window.

So a better idea is to make sure you have “clean oversight” at the front of the property, or wherever the main road is, with the most frequent footfall and traffic and ideally line-of-sight from neighbouring properties. The Metropolitan Police recommend a maximum fence height of one metre at the front of your property and avoiding tall trees or bushes that would block the view. Around the sides and rear of your property, however, a higher fence of around two metres prevents easy access – and blocks an easy escape. Note that two meters is usually the highest fence you can put up without planning permission.

In the same vein, try to avoid having a shed out front or parking a camper van in your driveway in a way that provides cover. A crunchy gravel driveway makes it impossible to approach without making a noise, and motion-activated security lights are a cheap and easy to way to banish dark spots (ideally install them around 3 meters up so they can’t be easily tampered with).

Neighbour watch schemes can be another very strong deterrent, although studies also found that burglars quickly wised up if the schemes were pure pantomime. They needed to see evidence of neighbours interacting, people looking out of windows at night and so forth to be deterred; signage alone had minimal effect.  

On the other side of the surveillability coin, consider whether valuables in your home are on view from the street. Contrary to the old stereotype of a burglar making off with a wide-screen TV, thieves generally have a strong preference for smaller valuables that are easy to carry and conceal: purses, money, jewellery, smartphones, cameras, laptops. (That’s not to suggest a thief won’t take your TV given the opportunity, or make off with a bike – but rather that smaller valuables are definitely the most attractive). Say you work from the kitchen table, like most of us during the pandemic, and as a result your MacBook is always on show… or maybe you’re in the habit of dropping your car keys or handbag in the hallway on the way in. Remember that those things present attractive targets for thieves and might create an opportunity for someone passing by. You can rearrange your rooms so that valuables aren’t in line-of-sight from the street, try to reprogram your habits, or (if you’re like us, and prefer set-and-forget, no-effort solutions) adhesive privacy film is a cheap and easy solution.

Accessibility and Security

Accessibility and security collectively refer to the ease with which a burglar can gain access to the property. They’re two sides of the same coin: accessibility usually refers to the ways in which you might unintentionally create an easy route for a burglar to enter your home, where security refers to the measures you put in place to make it harder.

These are very wide topics, and probably deserving of their own deep-dive article – but here we’ll try to cover as many fundamentals as we reasonably can. You should also bear in mind that you don’t have to implement all of these measures: target hardening is a scale, not a binary proposition.

Start at the perimeter of your property and work your way in. If you have a perimeter fence, is it of the palisade or the paladin variety? Palisade fences look very nice, but feature built-in footholds for intruders. Paladin fences (aka weld mesh) are designed with apertures that are too small to fit a foot into and a protruding top that makes them very difficult to scale. They’re also easy to see through, meaning you get a tick for surveillability at the same time.

If your perimeter is made of trees or shrubbery, it can be quite porous while still providing lots of cover for a burglar. One solution is to plant thorny, impassable shrubs like juniper, shrub rose, sloe berries, firethorn, holly, acacia, bougainvillea or crown of thorns. This also works well under windows, providing an attractive but effective barrier to would-be thieves and essentially removing one point of access from play.

Charmingly known as “defensive gardening”, this is also good way to increase your security without falling foul of the Occupier’s Liability Act of 1984 - which makes it “somewhat” unlawful to deliberately add defensive features like spikes to your home (somewhat, because it’s a bit of a grey area in UK law. Deliberately booby trapping your home is illegal, but also you can legally add spikes to a wall that’s taller than 2.4 metres as long as you get planning permission for that wall, have a “good reason” for doing so, and maintain clear signage to warn people). Defensive gardening on the other hand is actively encouraged by the Metropolitan Police.

Think about routes of “ingress and egress”. Does your back garden butt up directly against your neighbours’? If so, it’s quite secure by default, because it’s less attractive for thieves to go hopping multiple fences, alerting multiple homeowners and racking up witnesses and calls to the police (particularly on the way back out, with valuables in tow). Not so however if you have a “snicket”, a “ginnel”, a “twitten”, or even a “tenfoot”, depending on where you are from in the country (!) - a narrow passage or alleyway that runs between the houses, often round the back, separating the back gardens. Such features are strongly correlated with opportunistic crime, providing cover, access, poor illumination and low footfall after dark. Consider a high fence, defensive gardening, and a solid lock and chain if you have a gate that opens into the alley.

If there is access from the front of your house to your back garden, ideally you should block it with a locked gate – and try to choose one that looks hard to scale (i.e. it’s tall and doesn’t have cross-members that provide footholds). You can even fit a trellis to the gate and grow a spiky climbing plant like firethorn.

Something we commonly see in the UK is people storing ladders down the side of houses or in back gardens (usually because they don’t fit in a shed, and who wants to bring them indoors?). But to a thief, a ladder is a convenient access tool, and greatly softens the target. If there’s truly nowhere else to store it, chain it to something fixed or very heavy.

In fact, most burglars do not carry any tools at all. There’s a common myth that burglars walk around with a crowbar, flashlight, lockpicks and a balaclava… But burglaries are usually crimes of opportunity, not premeditation. Even if someone is heading out with intent to commit theft, carrying tools is a hassle, draws attention and reduces mobility, and there’s an offense called “going equipped for theft” which means you can be prosecuted just for carrying those items. There’s also the offensive weapons act, which takes a very dim view of wandering around with an unexplained screwdriver or a crowbar (to the tune of four years in prison)! In reality, burglars generally use things they find outside your home to gain access: tools from your shed, bricks or rocks from your garden, bins, stools and ladders to gain access to first-floor windows. Try to limit access to those things. Many thieves would be happy just to steal your tools. Store them in the house rather than a shed if possible. Check that your shed door can’t simply be lifted off its hinges (a surprising number are shipped from the manufacturer this way). You can get wireless, battery-operated alarms for sheds for less than £20 – they’re not fully-fledged alarm systems but they can easily be enough to scare away a thief.

Think about the position of outbuildings and garden furniture. Are they tall enough to provide access to a first-floor window that you might have accidentally left ajar? If so, you’re creating opportunities. Sheds should ideally not be positioned under windows or against walls that lead to flat rooves. If they already are, you can’t realistically move them. Instead you can de-risk windows that have easy access with an aperture restrictor: a catch, hook, bar or cable that restricts how far the window can open. They’re also great for safety in kids’ bedrooms. Some modern uPVC windows have them built in, but disabled by default - look inside the frame for a little catch. Cables are the least secure variety as they can be cut with basic cable cutters. Catches, bars and hooks would require a saw and lots of time and noise – and most are recessed in a way that prevents them from being cut from the outside. Aperture restrictors are a good security upgrade regardless, and they’re what we’d call a “set and forget” technology: you don’t need to remember to arm them or lock them. Security measures that don’t require manual input are highly desirable.

You can also apply anti-shatter film to glass. The film has a strong adhesive that holds the pane together if someone breaks it. Your would-be thief can still use a blade to cut the film, but it adds difficulty and time and again, requires more than just a rock from your back garden. Target hardening is rarely about perfect solutions, and more about incrementally increasing the difficulty.

Let’s talk about occupancy.

According to the Office for National Statistics, a staggering 64% of burglaries take place while someone is at home. But offenders themselves consistently report wanting to avoid confrontation at all costs, and occupancy is usually quoted as more of a deterrent than security. 86% of convicted burglars say they do everything they can to avoid bumping into the occupants, and three quarters would abandon a robbery if they thought they heard someone in the house. There’s also plenty of evidence that experienced burglars are very good at guessing whether a property is occupied, even from static photographs. So what gives?

There are a few things to unpack here: first of all, the research indicates that offenders are less deterred by the fact the property is occupied, and more by the possibility of a confrontation. From the same ONS statistics, we can see that in around half of cases where the home was occupied, the homeowner was completely unaware of the intruders’ presence during the crime – backing up the hypothesis that burglars try to avoid homeowners, rather than just occupied homes. Likewise, we can see that 62% of incidents occurred at night time, when it would be assumed that homeowners were sleeping (when considering thefts from outbuildings, it rises to 79%). So – technically “at home”, but very unlikely to confront.

We can also use the COVID-19 pandemic as a bit of a control group. We’re not trying to suggest the pandemic was a positive thing, but the silver lining on an otherwise very dismal cloud has been giving researchers in fields like climate science, economics, zoology and of course, criminology, an unprecedented opportunity to study scenarios along the lines of “what would happen if we all just stopped doing X overnight?” Criminologists from 27 countries around the world collaborated in a study which found that, amongst many other interesting results, burglaries fell by 28% during the pandemic. They also rose again as lockdowns eased, and rose or fell in lockstep with the severity of the lockdown. We don’t necessarily have a clear picture of causation, only correlation, but it’s another data point in support.

The best picture we can assemble from the evidence is that occupancy is a powerful deterrent, but it’s also a misleading term. Perhaps a better description would be “presence”.

Studies like this one, involving self-confessed career burglars, show they tried to build a picture of a homeowners’ habits – regular dog walks, for example – to aid in avoidance. In fact, all but one burglar in the study reported that they would “do anything to avoid a face-to-face encounter” (the remaining one reported he liked to sneak into bedrooms and watch people sleep, which is some good nightmare fuel!).

Security researchers therefore advise trying to vary your habits and not be too predictable. Walk the dog or go for that run at a random time, not the same time every day. But how practical is that really? Most people have hard commitments like work and school runs, and we can’t easily vary them.

Probably a more practical solution is to get a dog. Burglars generally report a barking dog is a very strong deterrent (presumably an Alsatian works better than a Poodle – although never underestimate an irate Sausage Dog). A “beware of the dog” sign might also be enough. Another actionable suggestion would be: if you suspect someone is trying to break in, don’t hide. Make a lot of noise and make your presence known – there’s a very high probability the intruder will scarper.

Leaving a TV or a radio playing when you go out will go some way towards creating an illusion of presence and deterring intruders. But many have wised up to this old trick, and report doing things like ringing the doorbell to check if anyone’s really home. There are also reports of things like sticking sellotape over the lock to test whether it’s been used or not.

Modern smart technology – smart speakers, smart lighting and so on – can be used to simulate occupancy in a much more convincing way - check out our guide. Back it up by getting your neighbours to collect your post so it doesn’t build up, and maybe park their car in your drive while you’re away.

In conclusion…

Burglars don’t want to get caught, and despite the number of burglaries that occur while the home is occupied, they generally don’t want to run into a homeowner either. Some basic target hardening can be enough to deter casual opportunists and career criminals alike. According to the police, these basic practices also seem to be more effective than fitting a security system (although further research is needed). 

We’ve said this before, but it’s also important to remember that target hardening is an incremental thing: don’t be put off if some of these suggestions seem overly difficult to implement. Just one or two measures can make the difference. 

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