While home invasions are rare compared to other types of violent felonies, the impact on the lives of the victims is severe and long lasting, making them one of the most feared crimes. When I talk to the victims of home invasion during the course of my job as a robbery detective, they often express feelings of personal victimization and that their home is no longer “home”. Instead of a safe environment, it is now a place that causes fear. This feeling greatly disrupts the lives of victims. If the invasion also includes a sexual assault or murder, the victimization is that much deeper for the survivors. Despite the rare occurrence of home invasions, we should be prepared to prevent and respond to them. The odds are low, but the stakes are high.
In its simplest form, a home invasion is the entering of an occupied residence without permission of the owner, generally with the intent to steal or victimize the occupants. There are several different types of crimes that occur under the umbrella of a “home invasion,” such as robbery, rape, and murder, and each has its own warning signs and methods of prevention. Let’s take a look at some precautions you can take to reduce your risk of falling prey to this type of crime.
Targeted Home Invasions
Home invasions are more likely to be targeted rather than random. Quite often, the suspect knows the victim. The most common type of home invasion by a large margin is the targeted robbery. This is most often due to criminal activity by the victim, like dealing narcotics, “debt collection” by narcotics dealers, or allowing prostitutes into the home who act as scouts for robbery crews. When there is no criminal act on the victim’s part, targeted robberies are often perpetrated by former domestic partners (either in person or by proxy) and family members with addiction issues.
Occasionally, the “friend of a friend” scenario occurs, where one of your associates has talked about your gun collection (or jewelry, electronics, etc.) and the wrong ear overhears it. In all these scenarios, the suspects have gained knowledge of valuables in the home and believe the defenses of the home are soft. Finally, some homeowners may face an occupational hazard, such as jewelers, who are targeted for the valuables in their homes as well as the alarm codes and keys for their stores.
Here is an example of an actual home invasion my office has worked. I’ve changed inconsequential details and names to protect the privacy of the victims involved.
Case Study 1: Frank
Frank owned a local jewelry store. His full name was on the sign, and a quick Google search revealed his home address. Frank’s house was large and fairly secluded. His bedroom was in the rear of the house, facing away from any neighbors, and it had a large sliding glass door that opened onto the rear patio. Frank kept the glass door slightly open for a breeze as he slept so that only the sliding screen was closed. The house had no alarm, no dog, and Frank had no firearms or other weapons readily accessible.
“Despite being disabled, he was then tied up and one suspect watched him while the other forced Frank’s wife to go through the house, putting jewelry and valuables in pillow cases.”
Two men entered the open sliding glass door by forcing the screen door with a screwdriver, a simple task that did not create any significant noise and could be accomplished in a fraction of a second. Frank had no time to react when he was woken up by a suspect armed with a handgun. Frank, surprised and confused to find someone pulling him from his bed, began to struggle and was immediately shot, gravely wounded, and disabled. Despite being disabled, he was then tied up and one suspect watched him while the other forced Frank’s wife to go through the house, putting jewelry and valuables in pillow cases. Once the house was looted, the suspects tied up his wife and fled. She was eventually able to free herself and call 911.
Frank survived his injury but never felt safe in the house again, even with knowledge the suspects were arrested and jailed. He sold his home, business, and moved.
The more people who suspect you have valuables in your home, the more likely it is that this knowledge reaches the wrong ears. While few of us have our names on a jewelry store, we could still be targeted for reasons as simple as a teenager’s friends coming over and noticing the large gun safe. Be careful who you allow in your home, both recreationally and professionally, and be prudent with whom you share information with regarding jewelry, cash, firearms, electronics and other valuables that you own.
Random Home Invasions
Many of the random, non-targeted home invasions start as burglaries where the suspect does not believe anyone is home. Some burglars are armed and prepared in case they find someone at home, but they are often just as surprised by the victim as the victim is by them. Be prepared for them to fight or to flee. These kind of home invasions frequently come with precursors and they can often be avoided if you know what kind of behavior to look out for.
In one common tactic, the suspect will knock on the door to see if anyone will answer. If you do answer, they will explain their presence by asking for directions, posing as a solicitor, or they may pretend to be looking for someone — “Does Bruce live here? No, sorry, I must have the wrong address.”
“Trust the precursors and your instincts if they are saying something is “off” about the person at your door.”
Verbally acknowledging the knock, even if you don’t physically open the door, will deter this type of suspect. If you feel uncomfortable going to the door, say something like, “Sorry, my [kid, husband, wife, father, etc.] is sick in bed with the flu, I can’t help you.” This creates the impression you aren’t alone, regardless of if you are or not, and also creates a social expectation that the person will leave without you seeming rude. The person without ill intent will accept this, likely apologize, and then leave. If the person does not immediately leave, this is a strong warning that they are up to no good.
Trust the precursors and your instincts if they are saying something is “off” about the person at your door. Call 911 to report the suspicious activity in your neighborhood before they can victimize you or your neighbors. If they still do not leave, announce that there is no soliciting in your neighborhood, that you are calling the police, and then prepare to defend your home should they force entry.
A related type of home invasion robbery is the “damsel in distress” set up, where an occupied home is specifically selected. This strategy most often involves a group of suspects working together. The first suspect, usually a female, will attempt to gain permission to enter the house and then let the other suspects in. The “damsel” will frantically knock on the door asking for help. She will pretend to be fleeing domestic violence or a rapist, or she may have a “child” (wrapped in a blanket so you cannot see if it’s actually a child) having a medical emergency.
If the suspect is male, he will most often pretend to be having a medical emergency. In both instances, they create the impression that time is of the essence, and they want you to let them in before having a chance to think it through. Calling 911, and announcing you are doing so, is generally sufficient to push them on, as they are not willing or able to force entry. Lone suspects are more likely to use more subtle means, like asking to use the phone or for change. Again, they are generally dissuaded by verbally acknowledging their presence, refusing to open the door, and calling 911 if they refuse to leave.
Another common precursor involves the suspect(s) posing as a solicitor, such as a magazine salesman or handyman. Rather than knocking on doors, they will canvas a neighborhood to determine the times of day when homes are unoccupied and to identify homes that are high reward/low risk. The homes most likely to be targeted are those with significant valuables, lax security, and no one home during times when surrounding homes are also unoccupied. The goal is a burglary, but if someone is home unexpectedly, it can turn into a home invasion like the following story about Lisa.
Case Study 2: Lisa
Lisa was home alone in the early afternoon while her husband was at work with their only car. Lisa heard a knock at her front door. She was not expecting anyone and assumed it to be a solicitor or a package delivery and she did not answer the door. A few minutes later as she was walking to the back of her home to go to the kitchen, an unknown male kicked in her back door and entered her home. He spotted her in the hallway, charged her, and punched her one time. The punch was hard enough to fracture her jaw and she collapsed. He then quickly selected some near-worthless costume jewelry and fled.
Lisa ran out of her home into the front yard and a neighbor happened to be outside getting his mail. The neighbor, seeing Lisa in distress, ran over to her and quickly called 911. The suspect was apprehended a few blocks away. While the suspect’s criminal history was significant, it was all burglaries and thefts. He had never before committed a robbery or battery. He believed the house to be unoccupied as there were no cars in the driveway and no one answered the door. He forced his way in to burglarize the house and was surprised to find someone inside. When confronted with a witness, he lashed out.
5 Ways to Make Your Home a Hard Target
So what else can you do to make your home less appealing to criminals? The following tips will help prevent your home from appearing to be a “low risk/high reward” target to a potential home invader. Think of these as the social components of your home defense. We can further shift that risk/reward ratio by adding physical components in a layered defense, or as the military refers to it, “target hardening.”
1. Security Systems
A monitored security system with visible signage is both a deterrent and a method of limiting the time an assailant is willing to spend in your home, occupied or unoccupied. Houses with visible signage for alarms tend to be left alone and the “softer” targets in the neighborhood are hit instead. We’ve caught invaders in the act because they cut the phone line, not realizing a cell backup had summoned police. If they believe the signs are a bluff, they generally flee once the alarm sounds.
2. Man’s Best Friend
They don’t have to be “guard dogs”, but dogs can alert you to strangers and also deter some criminals. Note that targeted home invasions where the suspect knows the dog decreases the deterrent value.
Exterior lighting, particularly around entrances, can be a powerful deterrent. Both constant-on and motion-activated lights are effective.
4. Reinforced Doors & Windows
Quality doors with reinforced jambs and/or security doors are a good deterrent as well as reinforced windows with modern films. Unsightly burglar bars aren’t the only option. Anything that slows the intruder down and makes more noise is good.
5. Pay Attention
Be alert in your neighborhood and notify law enforcement of suspicious activity. Nosy neighbors and active police presence will help push scouts out of the area.
Not all of these tips are applicable to every residence, of course. A motion-sensor light is more helpful when there are neighbors who can see it, and not everyone has the time to properly care for a dog. Take what works for you and your residence.
In my next article, I’ll talk about what to do when deterrence fails, including the armed response.