Home Security Tips: Burglars Use Disguises to Hide in Plain Sight
Some criminals case neighborhoods and
break in without arousing suspicion by acting like they belong—awareness is a
key burglar deterrent
The brain is always on the lookout for threats. It wants to know what it can trust and what it can’t. This is why many burglars (at least, the smarter ones) don’t run around in black jumpsuits and ski masks. Instead, they try to blend into their social surroundings, forgoing the stereotypical burglar “uniform” in favor of something more natural.
They could try to look like everyday people; putting on some running shoes or walking a dog. Or they could look like workers, throwing on a reflective vest and hardhat or dressing up like a delivery driver. Stories of burglars using inconspicuous identities (many assumed, but some real) to commit crimes are all over the news.
Burglars may use their disguises to “case” your house and decide if it’s a good target. Or they might use them to break in without arousing suspicion. Either way, a little extra vigilance (along with smart home security technology) is a great burglar deterrent that can help you thwart their efforts if and when they approach your house. Let’s examine how and why criminals use disguises, plus a few home security tips so you know what to look for.
Why burglars use disguises
Dr. Joseph B. Kuhns of UNC-Chapel Hill surveyed 422 convicted and incarcerated burglars about their techniques and motivations. Most burglaries, he found, are not pre-planned. Only 12% said they usually planned burglaries, and 41% said it was a "spur of the moment" decision. Kuhns cites research that, because of the ease of access and the kind situation they are in, urban burglars may be more impulsive than suburban burglars.
All burglars, whether impulsive or deliberate, have a decision to make: is the reward worth the risk of going to jail. Some will “case” (surveil) your property in advance. Others will make the decision as they happen upon it or make their approach. Whatever their strategy, burglars often use disguises to gather information or commit the actual crime.
Determining the best targets
As Kuhns explains, large, fancy houses with nice landscaping and expensive cars in the driveway are attractive targets for burglars looking for good hauls of cash, jewelry, and electronics. While they could simply drive around to look for such houses, there are less suspicious ways to pick out targets. By pushing a stroller, walking a dog, jogging, or hanging menus on doors, they can seem like they belong there. Delivery drivers blend in and are expected to drive around slowly and go up to people’s doors. Tradespeople and domestic workers (real ones) get routine access to the insides of homes and can look around.
Determining if someone is home
According to Kuhns as well as other research, an occupied home is one of the biggest fears of burglars. They will go to significant lengths to decide whether someone is home. For instance, they may observe the state of the lawn or mailbox. They often knock on the door or ring the doorbell repeatedly. Some even try to get the home phone number and call the house. In all cases, burglars need plausible reasons to hang around or approach a house.
This is where disguises and fake identities come into play. What if someone answers when they knock? They will often prepare a story.
Stories of disguised burglars in the
Jogging burglars scope out targets
Few people think twice about joggers in their neighborhood. That’s what makes running shoes and athletic clothes such a good disguise for burglars. In March and April of 2018, KRQE in Albuquerque, NM reported on two instances of burglars using jogging clothes to scope out targets. In the first case, thieves successfully broke in and escaped with valuables. The second time, a doorbell camera helped stymie the attempt of what may have been the same crook in a jogger costume.
Lost dog story leads to a home invasion
Sadly, criminals sometimes prey on their victims’ desire to help. This was the case in a small town near Ann Arbor, MI. In December 2018, WXYZ 7 News in Detroit reported that a robber claimed he was looking for his lost dog. He convinced the homeowner to open her door. When she did, he forced his way inside, tied her up, and made off with cash, jewels, and guns.
Real and fake workers use their jobs to scope things out
Many people don't pay very much attention to workers in their neighborhoods. Landscapers, plumbers, construction workers, delivery drivers, and others are mostly allowed to go about their business. They are often allowed in and around people’s homes. Almost all workers are honest people trying to make a living. But unfortunately, some use the access and anonymity afforded by their jobs for crime, casing homes and disengaging locks while they do their work. Other individuals simply dress up as workers to get close to homes without attracting attention.
In October 2019, the New York Postreported on the arrest of a man who posed as a FedEx driver to force entry into a Brooklyn home, tying up the occupants and making off with $130,000 in cash and goods. In August 2019, KTVU in California’s Bay Area described the arrest of an in-uniform Amazon delivery driver for burglary. The break-in was detected by a home security system.
Sometimes, burglars blend in by standing out. In October 2017, CBS DFW explained how burglars donned reflective vests to disguise themselves as workers. They approached an Arlington, TX house and rang the doorbell several times before breaking in. They were spotted on a porch security camera but still escaped.
The advent of services like Amazon’s in-home delivery and various dog-walking apps poses an obvious risk: people you don’t know can enter your home if you aren’t there. There are safety features in place in many of these services, certainly; but be sure to check out our article on how they can open the door to crime.
Moms, the elderly, and missionaries … or crooks?
We tend to assume that certain people—like moms, preachers, and the elderly—are non-threatening. If criminals can look like (or really be) such unassuming characters, they can avoid suspicion. In September of 2019, an 81-year-old serial burglar that had been targeting New York’s Upper East Side was finally captured by NYPD. At large since 2014, the man had, in his career, stolen property worth perhaps half a million dollars. He used his “grandpa look” and a bumbling demeanor to get into upscale residential buildings protected by doormen. Then, he looked for unlocked doors.
KGET in Bakersfield, CA reported in September 2019 that a woman was caught with thousands of dollars in stolen quarters hidden in a baby stroller. She was found out when police officers attempted to help her with the stroller. That many quarters, it turns out, are heavy.
In 2013, CNN described how robbers dressed as Mormon missionaries—known for their white shirts, black pants and ties, and backpacks—to invade a home. They convinced the homeowner to open the door by pretending to talk about religion. Then they attacked, escaping with $3,000 in cash plus expensive electronics.
Home security tips for spotting
burglars casing your house
With so many disguises available to burglars, separating the wolves from the sheep can seem daunting. You can’t check every stroller for a baby. You can’t vet your delivery driver. And you can’t call the police on every door-to-door evangelist or political canvasser distributing flyers. Constant suspicion of everyone around you is no way to live, in any case.
There are certain steps you can take, though, to foil burglars in disguise. At their heart, all of them are about situational awareness, a mindset and practice Stratfor defines as “being aware of one's surroundings and identifying potential threats and dangerous situations.” Core to situational awareness is knowing the “baseline” for your environment. You cannot spot someone strange in your neighborhood unless you know what is normal.
To that end, here are some strategies you can use to identify potential burglars trying to fly under the radar:
Get to know your neighbors
Look for strange behavior
Pay attention to workers
Get to know your neighbors
There are plenty of reasons to get to know the people who live around you. They can water your plants and get your mail while you travel, you can borrow items, and a sense of community makes life better.
Knowing your neighbors helps with security, too. Neighbors can keep an eye on homes and let each other know when they see suspicious characters. Being friendly also makes it easier to establish a baseline and distinguish suspicious characters and behavior from normalcy. You can save yourself a lot of worries if you know that Steve jogs at night, Carol's teenage son is going through a punk phase, Mike and Lulu just moved in, and Pete's hobby is bird-watching.
Look for strange behavior
Suspicious behavior is a signal for bad intentions. Of course, this home security tip depends on you understanding the baseline for your community. If you see some of these behaviors highlighted by the Berwyn, IL Police Department, something may be amiss:
Joggers or walkers looking at houses or yards more than is normal could indicate that they are casing houses to burglarize.
People lingering on doorsteps—whether they are canvassers, delivery drivers, or seemingly ordinary people—could be up to no good. This is especially true if one person waits at the front while another looks through windows or goes around the side. They could be trying to see if anyone is home before they break in.
People entering homes or removing property without the homeowner present could, of course, be movers or other workers—but they might not be.
Slow-moving vehicles circling the block may be workers or visitors looking for their host’s house. They also could be criminals looking for potential targets.
Anyone taking pictures of your house or yard, even if they look like joggers or someone else who might belong, is worthy of suspicion.
attention to workers
“The butler did it” is a trope because we so often overlook people in the service industry and manual trades. Even though almost all workers are honest, it can pay to pay attention to the tradespeople, cleaners, and other workers you allow in your home, as well as ones you see around the neighborhood.
When you hire workers in and around your home, you can take the following steps to increase your security:
Vet companies and individuals. Review sites like Angie’s List and Yelp can help. Also, know who is coming to your house. If you hire a contractor, ask them who their subcontractors are and find out whether they are bonded and insured.
Control the hours during which you let people work at your house.
Be careful with keys. Sharing keys with workers can be convenient, but think hard about who gets one and when. If you do share keys, make sure that you get them back at the end of the job. If you feel at all suspicious, change the locks.
Don’t be a target. When you have workers around, put away valuables that might make you a target for theft.
Lock up. When workers leave, check your door locks and window latches. If you have a smart home security system, it can automatically and remotely notify you if anything is left unlocked or ajar.
Understand that some security measures may make work more inconvenient. Choosing not to share access to your house and only allowing work while you are home will slow down many remodeling projects, for example.
When there are workers at your neighbors’ houses, you may still have concerns. After all, hard hats and reflective vests are cheap. If you are suspicious, it pays to communicate with your neighbors. You can also look for company logos or other insignia, and call the company to ask whether they have workers in the neighborhood.
Basic home security tips and smart
home security systems deter burglars
Beyond being more aware of your surroundings, there are other steps you can take to stay safe. Some are common sense. Make sure the lawn gets mowed and the newspapers and mail get collected when you go out of town. Use open landscaping so criminals can’t use your bushes to hide. Install sturdy doors and deadbolts. Consider getting a dog (they’re good friends, too).
Disguises are challenging (and effective) because they make you and your neighbors reluctant to challenge strangers. Motion-activated doorbell cameras, which played a role in several of the news stories we mentioned here, are one solution to this problem. Frontpoint’s Doorbell Camera sends notifications to your phone when it detects motion. You can see what is happening on your porch and even communicate with whoever is there.
Security starts with awareness. Understand that criminals may try to avoid detection by using a disguise or relying on some other characteristics like their job or their age. By looking inconspicuous or innocent, they can surreptitiously case your house or break in without detection. To foil their attempts, be aware of your surroundings. Know your neighbors and neighborhood. Know what normal and abnormal behavior look like. Be aware of who you allow in and around your home and how much access you give them.
The technology of a smart home security system will increase this awareness—plus serve as a highly-effective burglar deterrent.