Handling Home Invasions, Part 1 of 2
By Lawrence Kane
Residential burglars tend to operate during the day when homeowners are off at work, whereas home invasion robbers most often work at night or on weekends when you’re home. Automatically the danger goes up because your home is the equivalent of a secondary location. Intentionally conducting a crime in the presence of homeowner indicates an aggressive offender. After all, professional criminals know that telling someone to move during the commission of a felony is kidnapping. Kidnapping gets the same level of charges as murder—so, why bother leaving you alive to testify afterward?
There is an automatic increase of danger and immediate threat with any home invasion. They need to be taken very, very seriously.
Home invaders tend to hit known drug dealers and others who deal primarily in cash and are unlikely to report the crime such as those who live in certain immigrant communities which distrust banks. Even if you don’t fall into this demographic, they are often drawn to you through actions of your teenage or college-age children who may dabble on the dark side (e.g., drugs, stolen property) and unwittingly bring trouble home. Unfortunately, home invaders also tend to select those who live alone (especially women), the elderly, and law abiding citizens with obvious wealth too.
Most home invaders are men. One of their biggest sources of information for targeting who they will hit is having a girlfriend inside a company who feeds them information about likely victims. Sometimes the bad guys will spot you on the street, by the car you drive or the jewelry you wear and follow you home. These follow-home robberies tend to start in your attached garage if you have one. Often what they do is pull up and rush in before the door closes behind your vehicle. Other times they use jobs that require access to your home such as deliveries, repairs, installation, and the like to scout things out. Or, they’ll spot your home as a target of opportunity as they move about their day.
Folks who perpetrate these crimes are armed far more often than not. Attacks tend to occur with extreme violence, especially during the initial stages where the goal is to overwhelm, capture, and render you helpless to resist (e.g., knock you out, tie you up). From there you risk being beaten, raped or murdered, or (if you’re lucky) they might just keep you captive while they steal your valuables. At times they not only ransack your house but subsequently take you to a series of cash machines where they force you to empty your bank accounts.
All these options are on the table because you are home when they arrive. And, because their goal is to strike when you’re there, they are less worried about alarm systems than residential burglars as they assume that you’ve switched any alarms you might have off.
Home invaders sometimes force their way in through the front, garage, patio, or back door. While kicking in a door or breaking a lock is not uncommon, attackers can operate with subterfuge too. They might simply knock on your front door and then rush in when you open it. Or, if they need more subtlety to initiate the ambush they might pretend to be a delivery driver bringing you a package or a stranded motorist who needs to use your phone, or perhaps they will tell you that they inadvertently sideswiped your car and wish to make an insurance report. Frequently it is a single perpetrator who does this; his accomplices lurk out of sight nearby.
Regardless of the ploy, the goal is tricking their way in through your door in order to initiate an attack.
Home invasions are one of the scariest forms of violence imaginable because we all want to feel safe in our homes. Anything that breaches our sense of peace and security in our residence is very hard to overcome psychologically. Much like rape, it violates our sanctuary, our core, and the consequences can be long-lasting and considerable. And, since the bad guys are targeting you with overwhelming violence from the first moments they launch into the crime, you are unlikely to make it through the incident unscathed.
Fortunately, there are several strategies you can put in place to reduce the chances of having to face home invaders. Begin by becoming knowledgeable. You can often have your local police department or a reputable security company, such as ADT, do a perimeter walk and security check for little or no cost. Even if you don’t buy anything or hire the security company to install any equipment afterward you can learn a lot from a professional security analysis.
First and foremost, your defensive strategy should start by carefully choosing your neighborhood. Sure, crime can happen anywhere, even in Beverly Hills as Sandra Bullock discovered the hard way, but the odds of being targeted can vary significantly based on where you live. Find the best neighborhood you can afford, and then strive for one of the lower priced, humblest houses on your block. This can be useful both for controlling property taxes as well as for not becoming a criminal’s target. Then, get to know your neighbors, join or form a block watch, and pay close attention to anything that stands out from the norm to determine whether or not it’s threatening.
Before buying or renting a home look at crime statistics. They’re readily available online in many jurisdictions and can help you make prudent choices. Crime can happen anywhere, but oftentimes it is predictable due to commonalities in incidents. Factors that affect target selection for home invaders and residential burglars can include:
- Houses near criminal offenders. Bad guys tend to target locations relatively close to where they live, work, and travel regularly, so houses near urban crime areas, transit stations, social service centers, and routes to and from these areas can be extra vulnerable to attack. Even upscale neighborhoods with drug dealers tend to attract trouble, as rough clientele who frequent the dealer’s location may spot valuables along the way.
- Houses that are secluded. Landscaping that blocks a home from view of neighbors or passersby, poor external lighting, and homes that abut alleys, greenways, or parks that can be easily and discretely be placed under surveillance tend to make good targets because criminals can have access and egress unseen. Home invaders prefer enough distraction or distance between their target and surrounding houses that the neighbors won’t notice and report their activities.
- Houses near major thoroughfares. Heavy traffic areas, especially those on the outskirts of quiet neighborhoods or those near schools, malls, airports, or shopping centers where it can be difficult for residents to recognize strangers and nefarious activities due to all the movement and noise are at increased risk. Residential neighborhoods with ready access to highways make for excellent entry and escape points for criminals. In fact anything within a mile of a freeway is called a “robbery corridor” because statistically most hold-ups happen within that area.
- Houses in transient neighborhoods. Neighborhoods with transitory populations, such as those near colleges or military bases, can have increased crime rates because it is difficult to tell who belongs there and moving trucks or cargo vans do not look out of place. Further, bad guys often use real estate listings to case a neighborhood. Consequently if you live near a home that has been placed on the market for a long period of time (or abandoned in some instances), the odds of criminals scoping you out increase.
- Houses displaying obvious wealth. In most instances the home invaders are looking for cash or jewelry, precious metals, electronics, and other items that are easily hocked for cash. Expensive vehicles, boats, RVs, high-end BBQs, and other signs of opulence can attract unwanted attention.
Once you have settled on a location, home defense should be like an onion, layers within layers, each reinforcing the other. Start with your landscaping. Fencing, trees, and shrubs should not give potential invaders the privacy they need to do their dirty work. You will want something that looks nice but that doesn’t make it easy to breach your doors or windows. In fact, roses, quince, and other thorny bushes have a desirable aesthetic but are very difficult to hide in. Consider placing prickly foliage around areas the security walkthrough identified as a likely break-in spots.
Further, you need to be able to see everything that occurs on your property. This means using motion sensing lights and (where possible) video surveillance so that you will always know what is going on outside. Signage indicating the presence of alarm systems can help too, as they incentivize burglars to move on to other locations where they are less likely to be caught and prosecuted, but home invaders typically count on your having turned them off. With technology improvements of late these devices have become really cheap. For example video doorbells that let you see who’s on the porch can cost as little as $50.00 or $60.00 when purchased online, with high-end models running around $200.00. That’s a modest investment with a potentially large payback.
Moving inward from the yard to the house itself, solid core doors, deadbolt locks, reinforced door jambs, and double-paned windows make it much harder to break in without anyone noticing. And, these measures can delay entry to those who try to force their way in long enough for you to act. In most neighborhoods you won’t need bars over your windows, but if you choose that option be sure that they can be opened from the inside so that you can escape in an emergency. You want to keep the bad guys out, but not trap yourself or your family in. Since most break-ins use entry points on the sides of the house (or in fenced backyards) where it is harder for neighbors to see, you may not need bars on all your windows. Many insurance companies provide discounts for physical security measures and alarm systems that help protect your home, a two-bird/one-stone / one-stone opportunity.
If you’re extremely concerned about your safety or live in a high-risk location you might consider ballistic blankets or shields too, though in most instances those precautions are better for drive-by shootings than for home invasions. And, unless you’re aware of someone actively hunting for you they are most likely overkill; you’d be better off spending your money on other precautions that have a better payback for your investment.
Despite any physical security, you may have installed, it’s amazing how often crime victims report that they either failed to lock their doors or windows or simply opened the front door and let the bad guy in. Don’t make it easy. Turn on outside lights and check what’s out there via a security camera or peephole before ever considering opening your door. If it’s late at night and you don’t recognize the individual think twice before letting him or her in, no matter what the other person says. That’s good advice any time of the day, but especially at night when there are few legitimate reasons to be approaching your home.
If you have an alarm system, set it to “stay” mode so that it will beep if any doors or windows are opened while you are at home, keep a panic alarm handy, and don’t forget to set the system whenever you are away. Pre-program emergency numbers into your phone so that you can easily call for help when adrenalized.
Some folks have specially-designed safe rooms installed in their homes. That can be a viable option, especially if you’re really wealthy or handy with home improvements, but remember that they only work in limited circumstances. You not only have to have time to get there but also if someone can break in once you’ve hidden inside there’s nowhere else to go. You’re going to have to spend a pretty penny to build something that’s proof against attack, contains the communication (and weaponry) you require and is readily accessible if you need it. Whether or not the investment is worthwhile depends on your individual situation.
With or without a safe room, if you have more than one escape path you will have more options. Get together with your family or roommates and make a plan for what you will do if the worst case occurs. Like anything else self-defense related, you don’t want to freeze because you have no idea what to do in the heat of the moment. Have both primary and secondary fallback locations, exit routes, and meeting points identified so that you can check in on everyone after an evacuation. This works not only for a possible home invasion but also for other emergencies like tornadoes or floods as well. You may need rope ladders or other methods for getting out of any higher floors without hurting yourself too.
Don’t tempt the bad guys. Making an obvious or ostentatious display of wealth is never a good thing. Leaving expensive vehicles in your yard rather than storing them in your garage might attract thieves as can leaving drapes or shades opened so that passersby can observe large screen TVs, computers, and other valuables. There’s nothing wrong with wealth honestly earned, but showing it off can be asking for trouble. This includes flashing cash or expensive jewelry too. If you hire a groundskeeper, handyman, plumber, electrician, real estate agent, or anyone else who may have a legitimate reason to go inside your home be cautious about what you leave lying around for them to observe. Check out their company’s reputation and validate their credentials before letting anyone inside.
If you have an alarm system you can usually safeguard your master code and give out separate codes to roommates or trusted confidants (like a live-in nanny) who you intend to employ for an extended period of time. Even if these folks return their house key, it is a good idea to re-key the locks once they move out. Never give your alarm codes or house keys to a stranger unless it’s your carefully vetted real estate agent because you are selling the place and moving out.
Don’t pick fights. While some home invasion robberies are driven by greed, others may be inspired by revenge or retribution. Criminal activities aside, feuding with neighbors, belittling co-workers, driving aggressively, looking down your nose at people and general douchery tends to attract trouble. Try your best to get along with people and you’ll be much better and safer for it.
Consider owning a dog. Not only are these pets good company, but also a fiercely loyal hound will bark loudly enough at any stranger’s arrival to warn most invaders away. Dogs are a tried-and-true, low-cost alarm and defense system, one that has been used since the ancient times. There have been multiple studies of convicted felons in which they were asked what security measures were most likely to deter their crimes. Dogs virtually always show up at or near the top of that list.
Many jurisdictions have enacted “castle laws” which give homeowners (and even renters oftentimes) more leeway to defend themselves in their homes than they would ordinarily have on the street. The biggest difference is that in such cases preclusion may not apply. In other words, you’re not expected to automatically retreat if attacked in your own home. Retreat may be a good tactical decision, regardless, but it doesn’t always have to be a legal one. On the other hand, do NOT go outside looking for trespassers or to try to trap a criminal in your yard.
Few things are as adrenalizing as fear for your life and that of your loved ones due to a sudden, violent, and overwhelming ambush in your home. Home invaders don’t just bust in, more often than not they bust in violently. Such incidents are critical and fraught with danger, but prevention and preparation can help you get through.
To be continued in part 2…