Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 9, NO. 5 / MAY 1983 / PAGE 146

Program your home against burglary. Lawrence Block.

Program Your Home Against Burglary

Riding the crest of the current crime wave, the burglary rate is climbing even faster than the sales curve of personal computers. Throughout the country, in cities and suburbs and towns, hardworking burglars are jimmying locks, kicking in doors, peeling safes, and doing everything but sliding down the chimney.

If you own a personal computer, you have something they want.

Your computer makes you a target. It is a portable high-ticket item with a strong resale market. Furthermore, people who own computers are a presumably affluent lot, given to owning other articles worth a thief's attention. Small wonder, then, that gangs and individual burglars have begun to make a specialty of computer burglary.

For several years now I have been writing mystery novels about Bernie Rhodenbarr, a fictional burglar who solves murders when he's not going out a window with somebody's coin collection in tow. In the name of research I've learned as much as one can about burglary without getting arrested, and I'd like to share some of it with you.

There are three basic ways in which you can program your computer against burglary. First, you can avoid attracting a burglar's attention. Second, you can make your dwelling difficult to enter. Finally, if the burglar does get in, you can render his mission as unrewarding as possible.

How do you stay off a computer burglar's hit list? What you don't do is advertise the fact that you have something he'd be happy to steal. Don't be too quick to tell strangers about the remarkable piece of expensive hardware you've acquired. Avoid bumper stickers and similar items that tell the world you own a computer.

When you're away from home, don't let it show. Stop milk, mail and newspaper deliveries on all extended absences. Set electrical timers to turn lights on and off around the house. (But remember that the lone light burning day and night can draw burglars like moths. "How considerate of them,' Bernie mused in one such instance, "to leave a light for the burglar.'

During short term absences, a glowing television screen in the living room suggests that someone is home watching it. It may not ward off a burglar who already has his eye on you, but it can help discourage a casual prowler.

Don't let your answering service give the game away. An over-solicitous operator can tell a burglar more about your schedule than you want him to know. The same goes for those I'm-not-home-now messages on your answering machine. Don't make them too specific.

More Trouble Than It's Worth

These basic precautions won't guarantee that a burglar won't turn up. That's why you must make your home as hard to get into as possible.

You can't hope to make it absolutely burglar-proof. "A top thief could get into Fort Knox,' former FBI chief Clarence M. Kelley has pointed out, and my friend Bernie Rhodenbarr agrees. "There's always a way in,' he insists, "but sometimes it's more trouble than it's worth.'

You can make your residence too much trouble for most burglars, and it's worth the trouble it takes you to do so.

The first step is lock the doors.

Sound obvious? In last year's two million residential burglaries, 25 percent involved entry through unlocked doors. People leave doors unlocked because they are careless, or because they are only going to be out for a few minutes, or because it's the middle of the afternoon and they are home. Then one day they are grilling hamburgers in the back yard while a thief is lugging their computer out the front door.

While any lock is better than none, a sophisticated burglar can open some of them almost as quickly as if he had a key. The kind that locks automatically when you shut the door is child's play for any burglar worthy of the name. If you don't have to lock your lock with a key, he can open it with a plastic card or a screwdriver. Make sure you have sound deadbolt or drop-bolt locks on every outside door, and make sure you use them.

Burglars have several ways of dealing with locks. They spread door frames with portable jacks. They pull the lock cylinder out with vise-grip pliers. They work a prybar between door and jamb and jimmy the lock. Here's where a consultation with an expert locksmith becomes worthwhile. Let him examine your locks. He may recommend replacing some, reinforcing others with escutcheon plates, and installing angle irons to prevent jimmying. A police lock, featuring a steel bar braced against or across the door, provides further protection against the brute-force burglar.

Speaking of doors, make sure yours are equal to the task. All the locks in the world won't keep out a burglar if he can break a window pane and reach through to unlock them from within. Doors should be solid wood; the hollow-core type is too easy to kick in.

Got an attached garage? The burglar can get into it effortlessly--so treat the door leading from the house to the garage as if it were an outside door. Make sure it can stand up, and provide it with adequate locks.

Basement windows let in more burglars than sunshine. It's surprising how many homeowners overlook them, perhaps because they appear too small to admit a burglar. But human beings can wriggle through much smaller openings than you'd think. Steel mesh over those basement windows will let the light in while it keeps the burglar out.

If locks and doors are your first line of defense against burglars, second is a good alarm system. Your dealer can survey your premises and recommended the ideal system. You might choose a silent alarm, designed to ring either at police headquarters or at the offices of the security company, or the sort which makes a hellish racket to alert the neighbors and frighten off the burglar before he gets in. The silent alarm is more likely to lead to apprehension of the criminal, but I would think it less desirable if the burglar should pay his visit while you are at home and asleep. When that happens, you want something that will wake you up while it scares him off, not something to bring the police trotting along behind him.

The creme de la creme of the housebreaking profession--a Bernie Rhodenbarr, say--can frequently outwit any burglar alarm. Just as there is no such thing as a pickproof lock cylinder, neither is there an utterly impregnable alarm system. But the vast majority of burglars will steer clear of a home once they determine that it is protected electronically. If they don't spot the device in advance, they'll skedaddle once it goes off.

Some homeowners have provided themselves with the deterrent effect of a burglar alarm at a fraction of the cost by displaying a sticker announcing that the premises are protected by an alarm system. It's been argued, though, that a burglar with street smarts can spot a phony sticker fifty yards off. You pay your dollar and take your choice.

Cut Your Losses

Suppose a burglar gets into your home in spite of your best efforts to keep him out. How can you cut your losses?

For a start, you can best protect your computer by participating in a program called Operation Identification. Your local police will provide you with an etching tool and show you how to mark valuable articles so that they can be instantly identified as your property. They'll also furnish you with a window sticker announcing that you participate in the program, and thus warning potential burglars that they'll have a tough time reselling anything they steal from you.

A burglar might overlook your Operation Identification decal, and might be undeterred by your etching efforts. He can always keep your computer for his own use, or give it to his cousin for Christmas. So it's worth your while to make it just a little bit harder to steal. If you always keep it in a particular position on a particular desk or table, why not bolt it in place so the thief can't carry it off?

If that's not practical, it might be worthwhile to get in the habit of camouflaging your computer when you're away from home. There's a limit to what you can accomplish in this direction--it's tough to make a home computer look like an electric frying pan--but by throwing some sort of cover over it you keep a burglar from spotting it at a glance. Remember, burglars are in a hurry. They rarely have time to take a detailed inventory. If you can tuck your computer out of sight or screen it from view, you can increase the likelihood that a thief will overlook it entirely.

By the same token, you can minimize your loss of cash and other valuables by hinding them where a burglar won't think to look. And most other valuables are a lot easier to hide than a computer.

If you keep cash around the house, don't hide it in the refrigerator. That's where most people stash it, for some curious reason, and burglars know it. Don't use kitchen canisters, either, as a hiding place for cash or jewelry. Don't hide things in the top of the toilet tank, or in desk or dresser drawers, or on closet shelves. That's not as bad as leaving them in plain sight, but it's not much better.

Instead, use your ingenuity and devise hiding places of your own. In Burglars Can't Be Choosers, Bernie's own apartment gets ransacked. But his cash remains untouched because he has hidden it a bill at a time between the pages of books in his library, even glueing pages together so that shaking a book won't send bills fluttering to the floor. You can use books in this fashion, or tape bills to the undersides of drawers, or--well, use your imagination. In The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, a fence of Bernie's acquaintance keeps cash in an old telephone. You'd have to take it apart to find it, and what burglar would think to do that?

If you're a fair amateur carpenter, you can build false bottoms into drawers and closet shelves. And a mail order house has lately taken to offering the cleverest wall safe I've ever seen. It looks for all the world like a standard baseboard electrical receptacle, indistinguishable from the sort you plug lamps and radios into. At the turn of a key it pulls out from the wall and reveals itself as a hiding place just large enough for a handful of jewerly or a wad of cash. Now a burglar wouldn't need a key to open it, he could pop it from its moorings in a minute, but how would he know to do it?

There's danger, of course, in getting too clever for your own good. Just recently the papers carried a story about a young man in New Jersey who found a secret compartment in his mother's tea cart and stowed his coin collection there. He never told anybody, and one day she sold the thing for $25 in a yard sale. Away it went, along with $1500 worth of coins. If you do secret things around the house, a list of the articles and their hiding places belongs in your safe-deposit box, or with your attorney.

If you come home while a burglary is in progress, slip silently away, use a neighbor's phone, and call the police. If anything makes you even slightly suspicious, don't hesitate. Better to risk a false alarm than a confrontation.

Bernie Rhodenbarr is unarmed and committed to non-violence. But his real life counterparts don't always share this commitment. So don't take chances. Your personal computer, however much you treasure it, can always be replaced. But you're the only you you've got.