"We feel the current increase is drug-fueled," Police Superintendent Michael J. McGrath said. Many burglars, he said, sell what they steal for money to buy drugs.
The township, with a population of about 60,000, experienced a spike in these crimes beginning in July, in Merion, Bala Cynwyd, Gladwyne, and around Penn Wynne, police said.
The home break-ins usually are fast daytime jobs, done after the would-be burglar has checked out a street and perhaps even knocked on the door of a house to see whether anyone was home, police said. The pattern: Suspects smash a rear-door window, reach in to open the door, and grab something left in the kitchen, or head straight to the master bedroom.
Small items that are easy to sell, especially jewelry and portable electronics, are the primary targets.
Lifelong Bala Cynwyd resident Eileen Plociennik, 68, didn't need statistics to tell her burglaries have been rising recently.
Several neighbors' homes have been hit. Her retired husband has a new hobby because of it: He walks up and down their street "to make sure what's going on."
"It's kind of scary," Plociennik said from behind the circulation desk at the Bala Cynwyd Library, where she works.
The community seemed safer while she was growing up on Bryn Mawr Avenue in Bala Cynwyd, she recalled, when people left their doors unlocked. "God forbid" residents would do that now, Plociennik said.
"I do think police are doing a good job," she said. "I see police cars going up and down the street."
Still, arrests in burglary cases don't come often. In 2012, police made arrests in just 7.7 percent of burglary cases and identified suspects in 13.3 percent. Last year, police made arrests in 11.3 percent of the cases and identified the person they believed responsible in 18.8 percent.
Not all identifications result in prosecutions, police said, due to factors that include insufficient evidence or a victim not wanting to cooperate with authorities.
Burglars are difficult to catch, McGrath said, partly because more houses are empty during the day when adults are working, and partly because burglars work so quickly that they often are gone before police can be notified. And rarely these days do they leave fingerprints, McGrath said.
More young people, more crime
A community meeting in November filled the 175-person-capacity boardroom at the township's administration building to hear police discuss the situation.
"We accommodated some of the [standing-room-only] crowd in our caucus room down the hall, where they watched on live TV," township spokesman Thomas Walsh said.
One of the slides shown at that gathering was the average rate of burglaries decade by decade since the 1970s. The average in the 1970s was 643. In the 1980s, it was 473, and in the 1990s, it was 220. The first decade of this century saw the average drop to 156. The average at the time of the November presentation was 213.
The single year with the most burglaries was in 1980, when 953 occurred. McGrath said that record tracked with ballooning prices for gold and silver.
Higher crime rates also follow population bulges of people in their late teens and early 20s, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics and a resident of Malvern.
"The baby boom generation was in their teens and 20s in that period," Zandi said. "Now, the boomer echo generation is getting into their late teens and early 20s."
Bad economies are another contributor to crime, he said: "1980 was a really bad year" amid several years of bad economic times, including high unemployment.
Combine a lot of older teens and twentysomethings with poor prospects for getting a legal job, Zandi said, and "it's more likely you're going to commit a crime."
It's too early to tell whether burglaries will continue to rise in 2014, McGrath said.
Drew Melman, owner of Main Line Security & Energy Services in Wynnewood, has been installing security systems in Lower Merion homes for years.
"I've had lots of inquires and installed several new alarms, basically because of the burglaries," Melman said.
But he doesn't advise everyone who calls to get an alarm system. "Burglars are in and out so fast, it probably doesn't matter if you have an alarm," he said. "I've been recommending to people to hide their jewelry and make it look like there is somebody home."