IT'S the season to be jolly -- and to break into homes and steal, according to police and security specialists.
"Burglaries typically occur when no one's home, and a lot of people take vacations during December and January," said Maryvictoria Pyne, recently retired communications chief for the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services division.
January and December in 2004, for example, were peak winter months for burglaries in Los Angeles that year, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program. July and August, popular vacation times, were also peak months for burglaries in 2004.
None of this is news to Lori Fontanes, a Los Angeles filmmaker, who a few years ago saw the number of break-ins rise in her Westwood neighborhood and decided to do something about it. She started her area's Neighborhood Watch program, which really took off this year after another round of burglaries last December.
"People got scared and realized there was something they could do," Fontanes said. "We now have 50 block captains for 600 homes."
Fontanes already had a security system in her house but had been activating it only when she left for the evening or to go on vacation. Now, she puts it on for even the shortest daytime errands and sets lights and televisions on timers when the family goes out in the evenings.
Police recommend that everyone take similar precautions to make sure they aren't playing Santa to a thief this holiday season. Homeowners leave themselves more vulnerable this time of year, said Lt. Don Hooper of the LAPD commercial crimes division, not only because they travel, but also because they attend more parties and may be less cautious about thoroughly locking up when out running quick errands.
To outsmart a thief, Hooper said, homeowners need to think like one. He recommends casing your own house as if you were thinking of breaking in. Burglars "are looking for an easy way to get in when you're not there," Hooper said, "so you have to make it hard and make it time-consuming."
Since almost a third of burglars get in through unlocked doors and windows -- and most break-ins occur between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. -- it's important to secure all entry points at all times, Hooper said.
Simply upgrading the main locks and installing extra deadbolts will deter many criminals looking for a quick hit. "If they see some weird kind of lock or an extra deadbolt, many of them just won't want to deal with it," said Avi Barhoum, owner of All-City Lock & Safe in West Los Angeles.
He recommends installing a Mul-T-Lock deadbolt interactive system (about $165), a pick-proof and drill-resistant lock that opens only with a key that has been programmed by a computer rather than cut with a machine. "No one can duplicate it," Barhoum said. "It's highly secure."
Blue Ashley, a La Canada-Flintridge condominium owner, had high-security locks installed after a series of burglaries in her building last year.
"I feel a lot more secure now," Ashley said. "Before, I had keys all over the place. Now, I just have one key and I know that no one can make a copy, not even me."
For those who want the Starship Enterprise version of security, keyless biometric locks (about $675) will open only if the right code is pressed or if the pre-programmed fingerprints are shown on the screen, or both. To protect residents while they're home, an electronic deadbolt, installed within the door frame and activated by pushing a button inside the house (about $600 to $1,000) will provide an extra layer of security, and a panic button or pad (about $1,000) can be programmed to directly alert police or an alarm company of danger or intrusion.
A basic security system with one keypad and three motion sensors costs between $200 and $500. Having extra sensors installed on windows can cost from $60 to $100 per window, but homeowners can buy and easily install their own sensors for about $20 each in addition to the main system. Sensors are available at local hardware and electronics stores such as Radio Shack and Home Depot.
A basic alarm system can be an effective crime deterrent, but homeowners must arm second-story entry points as well as first-floor ones, said Chris Ragsdale, senior lead officer of the West L.A. Division of the LAPD.
"Burglars know that we're creatures of habit and that the master bedroom and bath are where we keep our jewelry and valuables," Ragsdale said.
In several recent break-ins at Westside homes, Ragsdale said, alarms had not been activated and upstairs windows and doors had been left unlocked.
"The burglars used the homeowners' own ladders to gain access and take valuables," he said.
Safes can stall a thief, but they aren't always fail-proof, Ragsdale said. High-quality models (about $400 to $600) that are bolted to the house's frame or to a concrete base are the most secure. In many cases, Ragsdale said, burglars carry lighter, unbolted safes out the door or easily pry them open on the spot.
Installing cameras is another popular option, said Mark Sepulveda, operations manager of USA Alarm Systems in Monrovia.
Basic Internet Protocol cameras ($300 to $400) can be installed above front or back doorways or hidden inside floodlight bulbs, potted plants or false rocks, for instance. The system can then be tied into a DSL line to allow the homeowner to watch the house online from anywhere, Sepulveda said.
High-resolution cameras have built-in infrared illuminators (from about $700 to $1,100 installed) that allow the camera to work well at night, and a digital video recorder (about $1,250) can record and store the images.
Scott and Heather Perren of Chatsworth had no security systems in place until two nearby homes were burglarized a few years ago.
The couple now have an alarm system and the house is monitored on all sides by Internet Protocol cameras hooked up to a website that Scott Perren can access from anywhere.
"It makes me feel really secure, and nothing has happened, except that we caught some kids putting up pink flamingos on our lawn as a joke," he said.
But no matter how much equipment a home is loaded with, common sense is equally important, said Al Radi, owner of ACS Security of Bel-Air. In addition to locking up spare ladders and stackable patio furniture, homeowners should make sure it always looks like someone's home.
Motion sensor lights can be installed outside, and for homeowners who don't have dogs, there are motion sensors that trigger barking noises. The Electronic Watchdog (about $80) sounds like an angry German shepherd about to bust through the door. Putting up a "beware of dog" sign also can be a deterrent.
Shrubs should be trimmed so they don't provide cover at the side of the house near windows or the garage, Radi said.
During the holidays, especially, some people tempt thieves without realizing it.
"Don't leave expensive gifts by the Christmas tree," Radi said. "Someone could smash a window, grab boxes and be gone in one or two minutes."
He recommends testing alarm systems to weed out costly false alarms. Last year, 98% of the alarms the LAPD responded to were false.
For L.A. homeowners with permits (which are required by law and cost $31 initially and $30 annually), the cost for answering a false alarm is $115 the first time, and the charge goes up by $50 for each subsequent occurrence. Homeowners without permits are charged $215 for the first time, and the bill goes up $100 for each additional false alarm.
Jennifer Lisle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Register your possessions online
Several new websites can help homeowners catalog their valuables. A record with photographs, descriptions and serial numbers of possessions can help police recover stolen goods. In most cases, the sites are free and are maintained by current and former law enforcement personnel. Among the sites:
Developed and run by Patrolman Tom Shea, a Brookline, Mass., police officer, this site allows users to register valuables free of charge. The LAPD has used the site when trying to locate the owners of recovered property.
Produced with help from the Seattle Police Department, this site allows users to register all of their valuables. A small fee is charged if users wish to publish a photo of an item. Stolen items can then be transferred to the Hot Sheet part of the site to alert police.
Set up by the National Security Number Registry Corp., the site allows users to register serial numbers on a variety of products for free. In addition to recovering property, the site can also alert property owners of factory recalls.
-- Jennifer Lisle