Burglary is common in summertime; police offer precautionary ideas
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; 6:46 PM
You can almost feel the sand under your toes as you finish packing the car, now overflowing, for your beach vacation. You carry in the flower pots that have been decorating the front stoop and flick on the porch light so the yard will be illuminated constantly while you're away. Then you head to bed in preparation for an early start the next day.
Loudoun County Sheriff's Deputy James Spurlock says you may as well put a welcome mat out for a burglar.
The Washington area's sweltering season, the time of extended vacations, weekend getaways and day trips to the local pool, also is prime hunting season for thieves, says Spurlock, a crime prevention specialist.
"Various reasons take us out of our homes, and that makes our homes more vulnerable," he said. "Burglary, it's not a random crime. They go out and look for a choice target. The mail is piling up, there are three or four days' of newspapers on the driveway. If you maintain your own lawn and your grass hasn't been cut for three weeks, someone is going to notice."
Last year in Montgomery County, there were more burglaries in August than in any other month, police said. In Loudoun, 33 percent of burglaries occurred in June, July and August. Thieves in the District have reached into open windows or through patio doors to snatch laptops or other valuables when a homeowner steps away. And Fairfax County police say there has been an increase in thefts of bicycles from back yards, pools and shopping centers this summer.
But police say there are simple steps residents can take to make it less likely their home will be the next target.
"Reduce the opportunity," District Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said. "People don't just walk down the street and decide 'I'm going to hit your home today.' They do some casing."
The key, police say, is securing your home and eliminating signs that you are away. Doors and windows should be locked even if you're only heading to the park or a neighborhood barbecue for a few hours.
For people who are going out of town for longer periods, police recommend putting both indoor and outdoor lights on timers to mimic typical usage. They suggest sharing vacation plans with a trusted neighbor who can keep an eye on the home. Automatic garage door openers should be unplugged to prevent a thief from getting in.
Police also advise taking steps to make your home look lived-in while you're away. It's a good idea, they say, to ask a neighbor with two cars to park one in your driveway. Arranging for a friend, neighbor or lawn service to mow the grass during extended vacations also makes the house appear occupied.
A car left overnight packed with luggage and beach toys is a clear sign you're heading out of town, Spurlock said. Keeping an outdoor light on constantly, when your typical routine is to turn it off during the day, announces you're away, he said. Even bringing in the flower pots that are usually outside can be a sign you may be gone.
"Look at your house a month before you go on vacation," Spurlock said. "What does the outside look like? That's how it should look when you go."
Fairfax County Police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell warned that vacationers also should be cautious about announcing their plans in the virtual world. It's best, she said, not to share plans on Facebook, MySpace or other social networking sites.
"When you come home you can share your pictures, but do it afterwards," Caldwell said. "There may be people who aren't as close friends as you think they are."
Nationwide, burglars made off with $4.6 billion in electronics, jewelry, cash and other items in 2008, according to the FBI. In more than 30 percent of those burglaries, the thief got inside without forcing open a door or window. Many occurred during the day.
Earlier this month, Howard County police charged four people in a rash of apartment burglaries in Columbia in which more than $50,000 worth of property, including jewelry, laptop computers, video game systems, cameras and cellphones, was stolen. The suspects were caught when a resident called 911 after she heard someone try to open her door.
Police in several local jurisdictions stressed that they want people to look out for their neighbors. If you see something that doesn't look right, perhaps someone trying to peer into a window or a vehicle circling the neighborhood, call the police.
Residents "are our eyes and ears," Prince George's Police Capt. Misty Mints said. "That's their neighborhood, and they know who belongs and who doesn't."
Lanier knows from personal experience that, for the victims, damages go beyond monetary loss. About seven years ago, her mother was away for the weekend when someone burglarized her Prince George's County home. Using her privacy fence for cover, the criminal hopped up on lawn furniture to get in through a window.
Lanier said it upset her mother to find valuables had been taken, but the biggest loss was a high school ring and some jewelry she had been given as gifts. The thief took the entire jewelry box.
"She's still devastated by it," Lanier said.
If someone does break in, Spurlock said, don't make it easy on him. He said an average burglary takes between eight and 15 minutes, and bad guys grab what is in sight. He recommends putting precious jewelry or items of sentimental value in a plain box and stashing it in a basement or closet with other storage boxes.
"Any burglar knows that if a woman has a nice tennis bracelet it's going to be in a drawstring bag or a velvet box, and it's going to be in a drawer with her silky things," Spurlock said. "Make the criminal work for every bit of goods they are going to get out of that house."