Who better than a burglar to point out the weaknesses in your home security? Christopher Middleton gets the inside track on locking up this winter.
Office for National Statistics figures showed there were 212,699 frauds recorded in the year to September versus 204,136 domestic burglaries.
The minute Rachel Kemish got home from work, she realised the family home had been broken into.
“The rear extension had been smashed and the door forced,” she recalls. “I was confused at first. Everything looked in order downstairs. My son’s laptop was still in his bedroom. And my daughter’s bedroom always looks as if it has just been ransacked, anyway.
“Then I reached the main bedroom. It was chaos. The drawers had been pulled out and emptied. My jewellery was missing, and some small gold items had gone.
“Luckily, my son had gone out. I hate to think what would have happened if he had been in the house. He could have had his headphones on, not heard the break-in, and come face to face with the burglar.”
Rachel and Chris Kemish, above, say the emotional damage of a break-in is much worse than any material losses.
Winter is peak time for break-ins, with longer nights providing more cover. The recession hasn’t helped, either. Burglaries are up from 651,000 in 2009/10 to 701,000 in 2014/15. Now the Metropolitan Police has launched an Autumn Nights awareness campaign, alerting people to the increased risk of burglary in the run-up to Christmas.
The case of Tracey and Andy Ferrie has added to concern. The Leicestershire couple were recently arrested after two men broke in and found themselves on the wrong end of Mr Ferrie’s (legal) shotgun. They were released after 66 hours in custody, and exonerated in court. But since then, they are reported to have left Britain to start afresh in Australia, not least because of possible reprisals.
Partially inspired by the Ferries’ case, the new Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, used a speech at Conservative Party Conference to announce increased protection for those who fight back against burglars. Householders will be allowed to use “disproportionate” force to defend themselves. “The public should be in no doubt that the law is on their side,” he said.
Reassuring words, but this sort of confrontation can only ever be a last resort. It is far better to ensure that you are continually vigilant when it comes to home security.
This is a subject Michael Fraser is intimately familiar with, having experienced it from the other side of the fence. He spent his childhood breaking into houses, stealing everything from cash to credit cards to televisions (small ones only, burglars like to travel light).
He was saved when a factory owner gave him a job to keep him out of prison. Michael turned his back on a profitable life of crime (one burglar was recently reported to have stolen £75,000 worth of goods in one year). He now earns an honest living as a security adviser for burglar alarm and insurance firms.
“Trust me, the last thing a burglar wants is a confrontation with the owner,” says Michael. “But if he is forced into one, he may well panic, then all hell can break loose.
“Better than trying to tackle an intruder is to jam something against a door to form a barrier between you and him. Then make lots of noise, to attract attention: open your window. Or, even better, leave it shut and hurl something through it.
“Alternatively, you can throw glass objects on the floor to break them. Apart from noise, the other thing that terrifies burglars is the possibility of cutting themselves and leaving DNA evidence.
“Attacking a burglar is not a good idea. If it is night-time, he will be much more awake than you.
“And although many people tell me they sleep with a baseball bat beside their bed for just such an occasion, a court can view that as an element of premeditation. If the burglar is hurt, it could be you who ends up in the dock.
“The best strategy is to keep them out of your house in the first place.”
Going straight: Michael Fraser now uses his skills to help people secure their homes
Which is not as hard as it seems. We might like to think that we were unlucky to be burgled, that it was just a matter of our house being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the fact is that far from the sophisticated cat burglars depicted in films such as The Thomas Crown Affair or Entrapment, burglars are mostly opportunistic. Many homes give off blatant “burgle-me” messages to the passing thief.
And that message doesn’t have to be wide-open windows and unlocked doors.
“It may seem strange, but a burglar is far more likely to bypass a house where the front gate is shut and go for a house, where the front gate is open,” explains Michael.
“The average burglar is always looking for signs. If a front gate is shut, it is likely that the homeowner is security conscious. The same applies if you have two locks on your front door.
“But if your gate is left swinging wide open, or you only have one lock, you are probably a bit lax. And if that applies around the front, it is likely to apply doubly around the back of your house.”
You should also think outside the home, he adds: your garden can tempt criminals, too.
“I was always looking for houses which had lots of tall trees and bushes to conceal me. Or I would look for corner houses, where there weren’t any neighbours who might spot what I was up to.”
Once inside a property, the burglar’s task is much easier.
“You can tell a huge amount about the owners from the inside. One thing I always used to look out for was a calendar. You would be able to see if they had an appointment or, even better, were on holiday.”
Nor should we kid ourselves that burglars will be put off by the presence of pets.
“For a start, a cat flap seriously weakens a door,” adds Michael. “On top of which, you know that people who have pets often don’t turn on their burglar alarms because they don’t want their cat or dog to set it off. So when you see a sign saying 'Beware of the dog’, you don’t walk past. Instead you think, 'This could be the one for me’.”
Other tell-tale signs are garden tables and chairs that you can stand on to climb through a window, plus tools that you can use to break in.
“Of paramount importance to any burglar is the ability to get in and out of the house as quickly as possible,” he says. “Two minutes in the house should be long enough. The first thing you do is to put a milk bottle on the inside of the front doorknob. Then if the owner comes into the house, the bottle smashes and alerts you.
“The key thing is to have your escape route worked out in advance. These days you can go online and look at maps to plan your entry and exit.”
As well as careful planning, no burglar can do without a bit of bravado. One of the first jobs, on entering the house, is to search around for opened letters. These will reveal the names of the homeowners.
A neighbour once challenged Michael as to why he was walking out of a house with a bag full of belongings. He replied, bold as brass, that John and Sally (he had found out their names) were getting a divorce because she had been having an affair.
“I said Sally gave me her keys and asked me to pick up a few of her things, because she couldn’t face seeing John. The neighbour was far more interested in the gossip than she was suspicious of me.”
This all sounds swashbuckling and excitingly seat-of-the-pants. In reality, though, people who have been burgled don’t feel as if they have been conned by a lovable rogue. They feel wretched, scared and anxious. As the Kemishes will attest, peace of mind is worth every extra effort.
“Every day and night, we were thinking 'Is he going to come back?’ ” explains Rachel. “As a grown-up, you felt uneasy sitting downstairs on your own. For some time, our daughter could only go to sleep if she came and cuddled up to me and my husband, Chris.
They eventually met their burglar through the charity Restorative Justice. The criminal was a surprisingly small man, she says. He was full of remorse for the emotional as well as the material damage he had done.
“It was a very interesting and uplifting experience, in the long run,” she adds. “But on balance, I think we would rather not have been burgled in the first place.”