Law enforcement officials say it's one of their biggest headaches. At least 70 times a day in Ventura County, police and sheriff's deputies are called to answer a burglar alarm at a home or business. Most days, 69 of those alarms are false.
Authorities go speeding to the location where the alarm has been set off, only to find that a cat accidentally triggered it, or maybe a power outage, or even a fumble-fingered homeowner who was confused by his own alarm system.
At least 98% of alarm calls in Ventura County are false, but police say they must respond to each one as though it is the real thing, wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars in time and staffing.
Cities in Ventura County are fighting back by passing laws that fine residents and business owners for excessive false alarms. The city of Ventura recently joined the attempt to curb the number of false calls, mailing warning letters to businesses and homeowners who have a history of such incidents. After three false alarms in a year, police will charge $50 per call.
"We don't want it to be a revenue-generating thing," said Ventura Police Chief Richard Thomas. "We just want to recoup some of our costs." Thomas estimates that an average call costs the city $100 and the department wastes more than $500,000 a year on about 5,000 wild goose chases.
Ventura and Oxnard are the only cities in the county that require citizens to get permits to operate alarm systems. Residents and business owners face misdemeanor citations and fines if they fail to fix an error-prone alarm, Ventura and Oxnard police said.
Other cities in the county bill people after a few false alarms.
Thousand Oaks and Moorpark have taken the toughest stands on burglar alarms: Sheriff's deputies in those cities refuse to go to locations that are on a disconnect list. After two freebies, Thousand Oaks charges $50 for the third call, and $100 for every subsequent call. After seven calls in a year, the business or home is placed on a disconnect list.
Moorpark does not issue fines. But it only takes five false alarms a year to get blacklisted. A business or home is not taken off the list until the owners fix their alarm, said Glenda Waldrop, alarm coordinator for the Sheriff's Department.
Authorities have a lot of discretion about what constitutes a false alarm, Waldrop said. She is willing to waive some false alarms that are triggered by things outside an owner's control, such as a power outage, she said.
About two months ago, a Westlake Village store that was on the disconnect list suffered a $10,000 loss when it was burglarized, Waldrop said.
"They were on the disconnect list for more than a year, and they didn't even fix it after the burglary."
The store, which is not being named for security reasons, began repairing its faulty alarm after a Times reporter contacted the business for comment, Waldrop said.
Camarillo, Ojai, Fillmore and Port Hueneme do not have any policies about excessive false alarms, and sheriff's deputies in those cities say they respond to every call. Unincorporated parts of the county have the same policy as Moorpark, Waldrop said.
No one in the county is put on a disconnect list until after a sheriff's deputy has served them notice in person, and after a 30-day grace period has passed, Waldrop said.
Police say false alarm laws are necessary not only for financial reasons, but also for safety concerns.
Ventura's Chief Thomas said he worries about his officers getting too relaxed after responding to frequent false alarms at a location. An officer who goes to 10 false alarms at one store is in danger of getting lazy and dropping his guard for the 11th call, which will turn out to be real, Thomas said.
"They should be reacting to them as if it's the real thing," he said.
A few Ventura police officers have also gotten into accidents while speeding to alarms, Thomas said. If an officer is responding to a silent alarm, he or she can't turn on the car's sirens and lights. No one has been hurt yet, but patrol cars have been damaged, Thomas said.
Police and security experts blame alarm problems on sensors that are too sensitive, improper installation, shoddy equipment and ignorant owners who don't know how to use their systems.
"For an alarm to be effective, it has to be sensitive," said Santa Paula Police Chief Walt Adair. "If they're sensitive, they're going to be triggered by a lot of things, not necessarily an intrusion."
A power outage or earthquake will cause everything to go haywire, and Santa Ana winds have also been known to play havoc, police said. Other common culprits are spiders, mice and household pets.
But the consensus is that humans are probably the worst offenders.
Dispatchers say they know exactly when schools and businesses open, because employees frequently trip the alarms. Homeowners forget to train new domestic help, and they often get confused themselves.
"We've got a lot of complicated features that are beyond what people can handle," said Brad Shipp, a spokesman for the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Assn., an industry trade group based in Washington. "We encourage our members to have systems that are as user-friendly as possible."
William Dundas, general manager of Dial Security in Camarillo, says a lot of problems occur because systems are improperly installed. "There are a lot of fly-by-night alarm companies out there," he said.
Dundas warns consumers to check for a state license and an alarm agent, as well as a physical business address. An average alarm system for a house can cost $1,000 and up, and more expensive systems run more than $3,000. Anything drastically cheaper is suspect, he said.
Dundas said ordinances probably will not force his industry to become more professional but will make buyers more wary.
Darrell Sparti, a shopkeeper in Ventura, said he got his alarm fixed "after the second time we got woken up at 4 in the morning."
Chief Adair said he still chuckles over another incident.
A company owner and employee accidentally set off an alarm's motion detector after hours.
"They were having a romantic interlude, and they were very surprised when the local police showed up with flashlights and guns."