Playing it safe at home

Special to The Times

Each day in Los Angeles, an estimated 250,000 residents rely on burglar alarms for protection. And despite a 92% false-alarm rate, the Los Angeles Police Department responded to 121,973 burglar alarm calls in 2002.

By the end of this month, however, a new LAPD policy is expected to stop police responses to unverified burglar alarm calls.

The news may leave some residents feeling vulnerable, but security experts say that when it comes to crime prevention, homeowners have plenty of options.

Although there’s no formula to explain why a burglar targets a specific location, Det. Susanne Steiner, a security specialist who has spent eight years at the Long Beach Police Department, said most are opportunists looking for signs of inactivity, concealment, wealth and access.


Unfortunately, by the time Jerry Potnick learned to read his home’s signs, it was too late. Potnick purchased his two-bedroom West Hills townhome in 1996. He liked the neighborhood. He felt safe. But two years later that sense of security was replaced by a sense of loss when two intruders burglarized his home while the technical writer was at work.

Today, a monitored home alarm system stands sentry over the residence, and the newly cautious Potnick, believing an uncollected package served as a green light for crime, has deliveries shipped to him at work.

His stolen computer equipment now replaced, it’s the sentimental items -- family heirlooms -- he misses the most. Like most crime victims, Potnick didn’t think it could happen to him.

Although down 6.8% over the same period last year, year-to-date home burglaries citywide totaled 1,704 through the end of January. Studies indicate that residential burglars operate within a three-block radius of familiar routes, favor affluent communities and quiet streets and strike mostly between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m.


However, because most burglars prefer quick, low-risk targets, according to Scott Nelson, a former FBI agent and owner of Security & Risk Management Group LLC in Westlake Village, a little crime prevention can go a long way.

Locking up is the first line of defense. In one-third of all burglaries, criminals reportedly gain access through an open window or door. Lock entry points and use solid hardware and deadbolts. Make sure hinge pins are located inside the doorframe or replace standard exterior-facing hinge pins with a nonremovable type. And secure windows and sliding doors with vertical bolts, set screws, window clamps and poles.

“Because burglary is such a crime of opportunity,” Steiner said, “the more deterrents you have, the better.”

Steiner also recommends using common sense. Residents who leave curtains open at night, leave bikes and tools in plain sight and put empty boxes from high-end purchases out on trash day may inadvertently lure burglars onto their property.

To make matters worse, many homeowners provide access by hiding spare door keys outside, allowing vehicles to follow them into gated communities and leaving personal documents or garage door openers in an unlocked glove compartment.

“If you are parked at a shopping mall and leave your car insurance, registration and garage door opener in your car,” Steiner said, a potential burglar “now knows where you live and that you’re at the mall. Then they can drive into your garage, load up their car with your stuff and drive away.”

L.A. burglaries may be down slightly, but the FBI recently cited identity theft as California’s fastest growing crime. Steiner recommends using a door mail slot or locked mailbox, taking outgoing mail to a public box and shredding personal documents.

Good visibility is equally as important as common sense. The dense landscaping that grants homeowner privacy, Steiner explained, also provides criminals with concealment and access time. The best defense: keep bushes and scrubs trimmed to 18 inches, tree canopies above 6 feet and window plants below the sill.


While some plants provide too much cover, security experts say such thorny plants as roses, bougainvillea, cactus and holly create inexpensive, natural defense zones beneath windows and along fence lines.

Lighting, like defensible plants, is a low-cost security option. Motion-detector lights (starting at $25) that brighten vulnerable or isolated exterior entrances are good, but Steiner said multiple exterior lights that remain on at night with glare shields to illuminate specific spaces, rather than light a large area and bother a resident or neighbor, are better.

With the average loss per residential burglary estimated at $1,350, Nelson said a basic alarm system with exterior signs, interior keypads, multiple door and window sensors, motion detectors and sirens is another practical option.

Studies indicate that homes without security systems are about three times more likely to be broken into than homes with alarms. Moreover, many insurance companies offer 5% to 20% discounts on premiums for residents with security systems.

Still, Steiner said, select a reputable alarm company with more than one central monitoring location. “So if weather or an electricity problem is a factor at one station, all the calls get transferred to another station, and you never lose monitoring.”

Rates vary. Protection One, for instance, offers a basic wireless package for $199 installed ($99 for a system that is wired into the house) with a 36-month contract and a monthly service fee ranging from $29.95 to $32.95.

ADT Security Services Inc. charges about $149 to install a basic hard-wired system ($299 for wireless), with a 24-month contract and a monthly service fee of $25.99.

In addition to monthly charges, some cities require a burglar alarm permit. In Los Angeles, for example, alarm permits cost $30 per year ($31 for the first year). Although a misdemeanor, subscribers without a permit are usually allowed one false alarm and fined $95 thereafter.


Of course, just like car alarms, this security method has drawbacks. Many consumers don’t activate alarms or learn to use them correctly, Nelson said. And police can be slow to respond to burglar alarm calls -- 43 minutes on average for the Los Angeles Police Department in 2001.

Although some residential security providers have armed-guard response units, most rely on local law enforcement.

With a permit, Los Angeles allows two false alarm calls in a 12-month period. Afterward, the charge is $95. City residents who attend a free alarm school class ([213] 485-2931) within six months of receiving a false alarm bill can waive one $95 fee per year. For alarm permit fees and policies in other California cities, visit or call (800) 732-2345.

But Nelson said the price of a few false alarms can be far less than the cost of a burglary.

Conejo Valley resident Richard Harrison agrees. An admitted security extremist, Harrison’s home has a two-camera color monitoring system (cost: $600), an ADT home alarm, emergency lighting, a backup cell phone and sliding bolts that lock from the inside on some interior doors. “You can never have enough security,” he said.

Even Libby, Harrison’s lovable pointer-Labrador retriever, has a doggie double: Shaper Image’s Radar Watchdog and Intrusion Alarm System, a radar-sensing electronic watchdog that barks and growls with the authenticity of a fully trained guard dog (cost: $130).

“It works so well that one of the gardeners told me that he wasn’t going to work in the backyard until I put the dog away,” Harrison said.

Safety gimmicks, fake security signs and dummy cameras (cost: $10 to $70) might deter a burglar, but Nelson said it’s better to have the real thing.

Even without the pseudo-pooch, however, there are plenty of ways to create an illusion of activity while away from home. Keep answering machines on a low volume. Pack up the car in the garage or rear driveway. Halt mail and newspaper deliveries or ask a trusted neighbor to collect them daily. Place lights, lamps and radios on programmable timers (cost: $10).

Inside, use a heavy (800-pound, for example) safe (cost: $1,500) or an anchored floor safe to protect jewelry, cash and important documents.

Create a photo catalog or narrated video record of the home’s contents. Keep a log of property serial numbers. And mark valuables with a tool, address labels or permanent or invisible ink.

Community safety networks are another good home security resource. “The more neighbors you know, and the more neighbors who are conscious about crime prevention in your area, the better,” Steiner said.


Insurance riders for specific items

Although most standard home insurance policies cover theft and vandalism, homeowners can increase content coverage or secure an addition policy, or “rider,” for specific items such as an art collection or an expensive piece of jewelry, according to Pete Moraga of the Insurance Information Network of California.

With a growing number of insurers increasing rates and canceling policies, however, some victims may wonder if a claim is worth filing.

Homeowners can put those worries aside, Moraga said.

“It is up to the individual to decide whether or not they file a claim based on the economics of the situation, but that is what homeowners insurance is there for,” he said. “We haven’t seen an increase in burglary claims, so it’s not something that insurers are going to look at as a problem.”


Michelle Hofmann can be reached at