On the House | Sometimes burglaries really can hit home

Posted: September 23, 2007

I was still about 75 percent asleep at 5:30 a.m. when I scooped the newspaper from the sidewalk, so I didn't immediately notice the police car parked on the other side of the driveway.

A red van was parked in front of the cruiser, so I assumed that the officer was enforcing the overnight on-street parking ban, established because such stray cars sometimes belong to burglars.

As I walked back to our porch, a tow truck appeared and began hooking up the van for removal. Since that seemed an extreme reaction to a parking violation (except in Philadelphia, of course), I figured the car had broken down and the driver had called the police for the name of an approved tow-truck driver.

Quiet returned quickly, and I considered the incident closed, until I went to deposit a bag of kitchen trash in the garbage can near the garage.

The back gate was open. It was possible that I'd forgotten to shut it, but I'd looked out the kitchen window during our dog's last outdoor visit before bed, and it was closed then.

That afternoon, the weekly newspaper arrived, reporting that a number of car and house break-ins had occurred in the last couple of weeks, just a few blocks away. The little gray cells began doing their work, and the events of early morning began to add up.

The gate likely had been opened by the person the police had caught near the red van parked in front of the neighbor's house on the other side of our driveway.

The van had to be towed because the suspect would soon be sitting in the county jail, awaiting arraignment.

Case closed? Not quite.

In report after report in the weekly paper's police blotter, the same words kept appearing: unlocked car; unlocked back door; purse left in car overnight; bike left in front of house; window open; no one home.

I'll acknowledge that after six years I've been "re-suburbanized," but even before I spent 21 years living in Philadelphia I knew that you didn't keep valuables out in the open, that you locked your car when you weren't using it, and that you never kept anything valuable in the car overnight even when you did lock it.

I learned my lesson 35 years ago, when I lost $500 worth of camera equipment taken from my locked car, which was parked in my parents' driveway on a back road in a rural town where farm animals outnumbered people.

The state police caught the thief, who was a local teen needing drug money. Unfortunately, he'd sold the equipment before he was arrested. My car insurance premium increased, and my next camera wasn't covered.

The same rules apply no matter where you live. I know the elders reading this are chanting, "When we were kids, we all got along and never locked our doors," but that era ended long ago, and the more claims you make now on your homeowners' policy, the greater the chance that it will be canceled.

Some federal data: Houses on corner lots are more likely to be burglarized. If your home has had a burglary, the odds of it being burglarized again increase dramatically - because the stolen items have been replaced with new items.

Residential burglars often are teenage boys who live near your house, the experts say. They are looking for easy targets, so if the risk of detection is too high, the typical burglar will not attempt to enter your home.

Burglars will spend a few hours to a week scouting a neighborhood. After determining the target, a typical burglar spends only a few minutes taking care of business.

Some crime-prevention experts believe that by simply altering one's surroundings, a homeowner or a neighborhood can reduce crime. Such precautions can be as simple as cutting overgrown foliage away from the front of your house or as complicated as rearranging streetlights to reduce shadows in which criminals can lurk.

Anyone who reads a newspaper's police blotter knows what has to be done: You have to make it harder for someone to rip you off.

"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

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