Recession crime is one of the grimmer fallouts of a cash-strapped economy and our homes are the latest target.
Home Office figures reveal a 4 per cent rise in burglaries across the country – the first rise in seven years – and in the worst hit area, Cambridgeshire, an independent survey reports an extremely worrying 51 per cent hike in break-ins. As of last Tuesday, the Government is offering homeowners a discount on home security products at B&Q.
Michael Fraser, an ex-burglar himself who appeared in the BBC programmes Beat the Burglar and To Catch a Thief, is not at all surprised. "It is 32 years since I was breaking into people's houses," he says, "and people's homes are worse protected now than ever before. People don't think anyone will break into their home, and burglary isn't thought of as a serious crime, but in a credit crunch there are always new opportunists."
Fraser gave up his housebreaking ways before he hit adulthood. He is now an expert in second-guessing burglars to improve home security measures, and we can all learn a thing or two from his insider knowledge.
What makes your home easy prey
Keen opportunist burglars will only target those properties which look poorly protected, says Fraser. "An opportunist will always walk along a street looking for telltale signs that you're careless." Having only one lock on the front door is an invitation to a burglar to try and break it. Have-a-go housebreakers will peer through letterboxes and can easily get access if you have not put a cage or net around the box on the inside. Evidence of pets is also a temptation. Displaying a sign such as "beware of the dog" or having an "I love cats" sticker in your window suggest that if there is an alarm system fitted, it isn't in use. Fitting a cat flap into a door will weaken the door and make it easier to break down.
Even a gate left ajar as you rush to work in the morning will give criminals the impression your home is not well protected. If you have wheelie bins to the side or at the back of your house, or any garden furniture, the burglar will be able to jump up to the first floor where windows are easier to break into. Don't think that a few metres or a small window will prevent entry.
How to play them at their own game
The flipside to these risks is that most are straightforward to put right.
At the very least have two locks on the front door: a cylinder and a main deadlock. "And use both locks," warns Fraser. "If you haven't, it shows on the outside." Get good quality window locks, and use them. "Window locks will make the opportunist head straight next door," says Fraser.
Neighbourhood Watch stickers are a great idea, because they show the inhabitants want to protect their home, which people rarely do before they have been burgled.
Move or obscure any valuables visible from the outside. You can also get items such as iPods – a classic burglary item – watermarked. This will enable the police to trace the owners of stolen goods. Put a sticker in your window stating you have taken this precaution. Outside lights are another valuable deterrent. If you have a letterbox, surround it on the inside with a net or cage. Chain up wheelie bins.
How to get the most from your alarm
The most obvious way to protect your home is with an alarm, but a burglar will know if a system is not in use or easily broken, says Fraser. "People tend not to have their alarms serviced. When they are serviced, the box on the outside of your house is cleaned, and a burglar will notice if it is dirty."
In many areas, alarms go off so frequently no one takes any notice. "It will scare the burglar, but if he feels he can smash the box and the house is worth breaking into, he will do it ."
Unfortunately, Fraser has found a way to override every alarm system he has come across, except the Logitech system he is currently trialling. He is determined to beat it but is so far flummoxed. The digital system includes a camera placed outside your house and one inside, and as soon as someone enters the area it records on to your hard drive or online, and it can send you a phone message or email. "I'm going away for a week but will be logging in to check on my own property," he says. "I have never felt so secure about a system as I do with this one."
What to do when you go on holiday
If you don't have a state of the art alarm system, take precautions by making sure the postman pushes your post right through the letterbox and don't leave milk bottles on the front step. Tell your neighbours you are going away and ask them to keep an eye on the property but – most importantly – never get picked up from your front door by a taxi. "It's so obvious," warns Fraser. "The taxi driver knows where you live and can pass on the information that you're away. Get picked up four doors down."
One burglar's aid Fraser cannot counter is Google Street View. "I'm disgusted by it. Being burgled is a horrendous crime, and Google Street View makes it easier for burglars."