Monday, October 24, 2011

Slobs Get Robbed

image: Witthaya Phonsawat
While there are a hundred different things that would-be thieves look at when finding a home to break into, one thing you can do to help them overlook your house is to keep it well maintained.  If your property is bad need of repair, you send a signal to those looking at entering your house that says you do not pay attention to the details.  People that do not pay attention to details do not remember to arm security systems, fix broken window and door locks, or put expensive tools into a locked shed or garage.

A clean home is a healthy home.  Your mother told you that, and you should always listen to your mother.  Keep landscaping well groomed to avoid hiding places against your house.  Fix things like broken window glass, siding, shingles, etc.  As well as keeping potential harmful water from leaking into your home, these things say to a potential crook that care about your home.  A mailbox is quite literally the first thing that a person might see of your property, so make sure it is rust and dent free.  A quick search for "home maintenance schedule" yields a ton of great pre-made calendars to help keep track of these items and LifeHacker did a fabulous description of all your annual needs along with a downloadable calendar.

Clean up tools and equipment leftover from work you may have been doing around the home and children's toys that were being played with that day.  Not only will these items potentially walk away, while a thief is on your property taking those things, he gets a good look around and will probably be able to look inside your windows. Aside from just creeping you out a little, this gives a thief a look at any other goodies he might want to come back for later.  

Normal daily or weekly maintenance is important too.  Make sure that your lawn gets mowed on a regular basis and take your mail and paper into your house every day to avoid the appearance of a vacated home.  Of course, if you are going out of town and really will have a vacated home, get a neighbor or a housesitter to take care of things.

Take the time to take proper care of your home.  A broken house will be a magnet to criminals that might believe you to be slack in other areas of your life, too.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hello? Who's There?

image: Michelle Meiklejohn
I have mentioned how to lock down the items in your home and what kind of security system you should have. Ok.  Now what?  Imagine you are sitting in your home after a long day at work.  Your spouse is due back from work any minute with an armload of groceries.  Dinner is ready to be started (got to have those tomatoes from the store!).  One of your kids are is upstairs on the computer doing homework, and the other is in the back yard playing.  There is a frantic knock at the door, so your spouse must be here (hands full) with the groceries. All is well with the world, dinner can start.

No one knows what they would do if the person at the door is an intruder, intending to enter your home and take what (or who) they want.  Any person that thinks they would be the hero and fight the bad guys to protect their family is, quite frankly, equally likely to seize up in fear and be totally unable to move or stop crying.  It is a fact of nature...fight or flight.  You do not always get to consciously choose which you do under even the best case of the worst-case scenarios.  If the intruders above were to grab my son out of the back yard before they came to the door, I would be a nervous wreck, and I would fall all over myself to make sure that he did not get hurt.  So the question is, what kinds of things can we do to make sure that this situation is less likely to present itself in the first place.  Any one of these topics is worthy of several articles by themselves, so we'll summarize them here.  Let's start at the first occurrence of the would-be bad guys and work our way in to the home.

If you are like most people, in most parts of the civilized world (though certainly not all!), in order to get to your home, the bad guys had to get past the most important security feature anyone can have.  It should be no surprise that people that live in populated areas are safer than those that are isolated.  While there is still a high possibility of a criminal getting to your house unnoticed, your neighbors are an asset that should not be overlooked.  Get to know your neighbors, and form a neighborhood watch association if there is enough interest.  If there are not enough people interested, at least you will have met people and raised some awareness.

Next, everyone must stay in the home with bars over the windows and all the doors quadruple bolted and nailed shut.  No...not really, but some precautions should be taken to make sure that the safety of all the family members is considered.  Let's start with your children.

Children are interesting, in that the more secure they are the less happy they - and you - are.  The kid in the back yard could be 8, 12, 15, or 20 and they should still be watched over and protected.  Hopefully, if your son or daughter is playing alone outside, they are in a fenced yard and have been trained to not leave the yard or talk to strangers.  You should also be watching them in some way.  The strictest among us will say that we should be standing in the yard watching like overlords, but many of us remember that when our parents did that we were not as free to explore things (granted - that may have been a good thing!).  A simple, inexpensive webcam and a laptop could do the job without being overbearing. 

The indoor child is doing her homework...yeah, right! On the computer, he or she is instant messaging, video chatting, facebooking, etc. Sometimes it is with friends, but sometimes it is with "friends." Your kids, unfortunately, do not know the difference between a person that they know and a person that they can trust. Learning that is part of growing up, but when many of us were kids, the biggest downside of being wrong was getting humiliated in rumor at school the next day.  Today, telling someone online (who could be anybody) that "Mom isn't home" or that your parents "never lock the doors" could be dangerous and even fatal.  There are many ways that online activity can be monitored, but education should be the first line of defense, because none of the other methods are foolproof.

Your spouse is on the way home with an armload of groceries.  She will need to have a safe mode of entry into the house.  First, one of my favorite, low-cost, underrated security measures is motion-detector lights.  A well-lit house as she is pulling up in the driveway will go a long way to avoiding trouble.  Next important is a simple phone call to tell you that she is on the way home.  This does several things, but the most important is to inform you that she will be pulling up in a few seconds and that you should be watching out for her.

Lastly, let's take a look at you.  First, watch your kids, you lazy bum!  You can read the blogs, watch TV, or take a nap after your kids have gone to bed.  Also, doors should be locked when family members are in the house and also when they are not.  If you have the money, get a door lock that is always locked and requires a code to be entered.  They have disadvantages, but they are typically very secure, because no one forgets to lock the door.  Next, do not answer the door without looking to see who is there first.  If do not like peep holes in the door, install a good quality chain latch or bar guard (like those in hotels).

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, this is just a shotgun approach to the subject of occupied home security.  As time goes on, I'll expand on the topics above and offer more detail on tips and suggestions.  In the meantime, remember that the key to family and home security is usually as simple as common sense, and where we go wrong is getting lazy.

Monday, October 10, 2011

But I've Got a Yard Sign!

So you have a security system, but is that really enough? I am frequently asked why a security system is needed. “I’ve got that sign that goes in the front yard,” I am told. While it is true that the sign is a large part of security, the belief that there is nothing else to do is the most dangerous thing you can do for your home and family.

The yard sign for a security system is arguably approximately 60% of the security of a home. It says to would-be thieves, “I hear the Millers down the street got a new TV…try them.” Just as a trained law officer knows how to spot a liar, a professional thief knows when a house is only sporting a sign and lacks a real system. Remember that vacuum salesman that was going door-to-door? He noticed that you did not have a contact on your front door and told three of his friends. When you went to the store the other day you neglected to close the drapes in the Family Room, and the guy that wants into your house got a good look at the room that has no motion or glassbreak detectors. It is easy to find this stuff out, and if someone wants in, they will find it out. Securing your home requires far more than a yard sign.

Once you have a yard sign, get a matching system. You must have something in place that makes it very uncomfortable for when an attempt to enter your home occurs. Door contacts are a must, followed up with motion or glassbreak detectors. You can get as elaborate as you are comfortable with beyond that, but remember your goal of making it difficult.

Monitoring is something I personally believe to be optional. Any security company worth anything will offer you the opportunity to buy a system and NOT monitor it. The “bigs” that offer a free or inexpensive system typically will only be LEASING you the system in return for a multiple year contract that must be entered. The monitoring signal can easily be cut, and if you live in an area considered remote (more of us than you think), response time can be dismal. Cell options are expensive, but well worth the money if you feel you must be monitored, as they are almost absolutely fool-proof. If you also have some fire devices attached to your security system (recommended highly), stop thinking about it and sign up to monitor your system. The decision to monitor for your burglar system should be made before a system is installed, and you should consider where you live and how much other security you have applied to your home.

There are several things that you can do to support a security system in the attempt to lock down a home. Door locks should be changed within the hour of purchase. This includes new homes. You have no idea who has a copy of the key that opens your door and a locksmith is cheap (usually under $100). If you have old hardware, just have the locksmith go ahead and replace it altogether. Your local hardware store sells locks and can point you to a qualified locksmith. Once you have good locks, use them. Everyone in the family should be extra careful to make sure that doors and windows are locked, and parents can make a game out of it to get kids in the act.

A system in place to keep people out, it is time to look at your valuables. It is not enough to try to keep someone out with a security system. Even a wirelessly monitored system in a downtown area will have response times by law enforcement measured in minutes…several of them, probably. That is plenty of time for a person to find and take valuable jewelry, cash, collectibles, and other high-dollar items that may not even know you have. Go ahead and take stock of your home’s items. You should be doing this for your insurance company anyway. Get a calculator and add up how much you stand to lose if someone breaks into your home. I know this can be a pain, but valuables should be locked up, even inside your locked home. Safes, lockable display shelves, key boxes, etc. should be used to supplement your security system.

Security is far more than just the sign in the yard. It should be considered tantamount to the lives of those living in the home. The items in your home represent hours, days, months, or even years of your life and the lives of other family members that should be protected at all costs. If the cash on your nightstand is stolen, you have to consider the hours of your life spent making that money as having just been taken. If someone breaks in to take your baseball card collection, think of the days (probably months) of your life spent collecting, cataloging, and just gazing at the cards and how someone just murdered that time of yours ... because you have to do it all over again. Priceless heirlooms passed down through four generations by your Great, Great Uncle Louie represent lifetimes of pride and achievement to many people and should be well preserved.

Photo courtesy of

Monday, October 3, 2011

Locking Down the Inside of Your Home

Securing a home starts with a good quality security system, but does not end there. Since even the dumbest of criminals know that a system is only as good as the response time of the police department, the point of a security system is to limit the amount of time that a criminal can spend in a home. If you have a system in place, you could be giving a good burglar several minutes to ransack your home looking for goodies. That is plenty of time. The true protection of valuables comes from locking down on the inside as well as the outside.

Jewelry is the obvious target of burglars. People have a tendency to lay jewelry all over the house. Wedding rings at the kitchen sink, watches on the endtable next to your favorite seat, and necklaces on the bedside table. Do not do this. Instead, take the extra time each chance you get (usually as you take it off) to place it in a safe and lock the safe. Get each member of the household a small safe to put in the closet of their bedrooms and teach kids to do this religiously.

Paintings can be a big ticket item for some households. Your typical thief may not know much about art, but may be able to spot something that would be worth a buck or two. Do not let your fabulous art collection - or that great one-time purchase - sell at the local flea market for $100 because you did not take precautions. For the price of a couple of proverbial cups of joe, you could purchase locks for your paintings and high-class artwork that mount unseen behind the frames that add security from theft and, as an added advantage, keep them level on the wall.

Your banking and personal records, if in the wrong hands, is the hurt that keeps on hurting. A file cabinet full of information can get a thief on Easy Street for weeks, months, or even years. Many people, myself included, have credit cards that have never been activated. These can be a crippling loss because it may be months before you even realize that they are being used. Social security numbers and birth certificates can get new accounts opened and used for many years to come, even after a credit freeze is put in place. Instead of a traditional file cabinet, purchase one that has extra security locks in place and is either big enough to not be carried off or can be bolted down.

Collectibles come in two flavors: ones that are shown off to everyone everyday in a display case (such as ceramic figurines) and those that are brought out on special occasion to gaze upon (like baseball cards). The latter is easy enough to secure with a locked safe or, if they are larger items, a lockable closet. Make sure that if you are using a closet, that the door is not a stock hollow-core door and that the lock is a deadbolt. The shown collectibles are far more difficult to secure. Use your judgement on how badly you want to keep them. If the money is justified or not a concern, use a sturdy framed display case mounted securely to the wall and using a shatter-proof glass film such as this. You cannot enjoy the items that may represent years (or generations) of work if they are being sold on eBay.

Who here has keys to someone else's house? Show of hands. 1, 2, 3 ... a lot of us. Now, who here wants to explain to Fred and Freida, down the street, that you may have just handed a burglar the keys to their home. I have been in peoples' homes that have a key holder by the door with keys labeled as follows: Wilson - 4659. If those people were broken into, next week a burglar, armed with a key and the probable security code, would be listening to the Wilson's stereo while they used their laptop to sell the rest of their stuff on Craig's List. Using a simple keybox next to the door would solve that problem totally and completely.

Whatever vessel you choose to lock down the items in your home, make sure that several important steps are taken. Use them correctly. Do not place all your jewelry or documents in a safe and leave it opened or put the key on the kitchen counter labeled "Becka's safe." I know that it may seem like a pain, but better to spend a few seconds here and there to avoid the months it would take to replace it all. Bolt down safes and smaller file cabinets while you are bolting your paintings to the wall. Nothing says oops like giving someone a lifetime to crack a safe because it is sitting on their workbench instead of in your closet. When bolting things to the wall, always, always, always (ad infinitum) use a stud and do not ever rely on drywall anchors of ANY kind, because a four dollar prybar will pull right out. The right security tools are nothing without using them the right way.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Got a Hammer? Take a Step Back Instead.

I believe in knowing how to do anything you need to do. I think a grown person should know how a toilet works, why a car runs, and where peanut butter comes from. It is important to me that I know how to fix my leaking roof and my wireless network. Not to get on a soapbox, but frankly, if more people knew more about how stuff works, the world would simply move a little easier.

But, having said that, I also think it's important to hire a person to fix or install things if I think that the professional knows considerably more than me, or at least when I know remarkably little. It gets done faster and usually with quite a bit more quality. I know (or at least have good idea) when I am being swindled or when I am simply not being given high quality workmanship, but I do not have to spend a sweat-soaked Sunday in an attic or under a hood when I could be playing with my babies. It is important to look for several things when you are on the hunt for a good buy on the security service front.

Be on the lookout for a medium-sized company. Size here refers to the product line, not the number of employees or size of the showroom. Hiring a company that specializes in one product is likely to be very expensive and close-minded to anything that is not a regular product they sell. For example, just try to get most high-end home theater companies to interface your favorite record player into your fancy remote control for less than the price of a small island nation. On the flip side, your mega-super chain box stores have great prices and a huge selection but frequently have no idea how to plug anything in, let alone operate it. Your best bet is with a company that sells a variety of products in three or four categories, but keeps it focused on the customer service and less on retail sales.

If you are unsure of where to start looking for a good security company, ask around. The best companies for this kind of work market themselves mostly to builders. Look at your local Home Builders Association (HBA) or in real estate publications. Find a product that you are interested for and ask the company (usually online) who their local retailers are. Find the supply houses in the area - electrical or alarm equipment suppliers - and ask them. Of course, you can also ask your friends and neighbors. Even if they do not have anything like safes bolted in their closets or web-enabled camera systems, they may have simply loved the people that mounted their outdoor key lock-box.

Do not get hung up on showrooms. Almost everybody I speak to wants to see a showroom because they want to see the "goods." The fact is that showrooms cost a lot of time and money. What good is a showroom? Emotion. It's the 21st century, and we do not need emotion. We need product reviews and Consumer Reports (which I recommend highly for everything), and we do not need to touch things. If you feel you need to touch things and the provider you are considering feels as I do about showrooms, than he or she can probably take you to a house where work is currently being performed to show it to you.

Do not research the quote that you are given on the Internet. The Web is chock full of people that will sell you stuff "for cheap," but they are all wholesalers. The Internet does not install stuff. The Internet does not come to your house to help you decide on the right product for your instance. The Internet does not come to your house when the thing you bought is not working and fix it. These things are expensive to offer and so the technology provider that offers them cannot compete with the Web which does not.

I hope this helps you find a professional to install or repair that cool new thing that you have been itching for. Sit back and enjoy a nice tall drink this weekend, and let someone else do the work...just know what it is that someone is doing.

Photo by Arvind Balaraman

Monday, September 19, 2011

Free To Be Secure, Secure in Your Freedom

We live in a crazy world. Very rarely does a day go by without a story of a home break-in, a ring of identity thefts, or (sadly) an attack on some unsuspecting, unprepared individual. It can be frightening for a person like me with a wife and two young children. It was frightening for me before I got married. It will be particularly bad when my kids grow up and move out beyond my protection. But I'm not worried.

Our society should close and lock the doors to our homes, then nail them shut and wire them to small explosives such that they can never be opened. We should be attaching bars to all our windows and plugging them into the AC lines so that anyone that dares even look into our homes gets fried. We should have spotlights constantly scanning our property lines like a bad spy film from the 60's. But we don't.

Security concerns over the last two to three decades have led to a dizzying array of home protection products, self defense classes and products, and ways to watch over your "stuff" (nanny cams anyone?). We do spend a lot of money on this stuff as a whole, but do we spend it in the right places?

The purpose of this blog is to explain how to be protective and protected without being a prisoner. One needs to know how to protect one's home and one's self without feeling trapped. Throughout this blog, you will find tips, funny stories of stupid criminals, unfortunate stories of people that have been attacked, and more. They will all follow the same basic truths that I believe:
  • People need to protect themselves and their families.
  • People need to protect their property.
  • People need to protect others within their community.
You may find that you do not believe one of those (some people give me fits about the last one), but they will all be found here. My hope is to garner a common sense about how to go about keeping yourself and those around you safe (or at least safer than before).