Wise up to the burglar
If you want to burglar-proof your house, ask a burglar. A reformed housebreaker shows Beck Eleven the best ways to protect property these holidays.
First the bad news: If a burglar wants to break into your house, little will prevent him. Now the good news: Deterring a burglar can be as simple as clearing your mailbox, displaying alarm stickers and keeping trees trimmed.
Curtain-twitching neighbours are your first defence when it comes to protecting your home.
'Can I burgle your house?"
It was a strange question to ask, but Your Weekend wanted to see how an experienced burglar sized up potential homes for robbery. So I asked five homeowners in the reasonably affluent Christchurch suburb of St Albans if we could pretend to burgle their homes in the name of research.
Corey (not his real name) is a tall, fit 30-something. Six years ago, he was a blight on your belongings. He had burgled thousands of properties for food, booze, televisions, laptops, cash and jewellery. He is not proud of his past, but growing up, crime seemed like the only option on Corey's career ladder.
His father was killed when he was a teenager and he wound up being fed and cared for by a couple who encouraged youths to steal.
Perhaps you hate him already or romanticise him as a contemporary Oliver Twist. Either way, Corey was pretty good at burgling.
By the age of 15, he had been convicted for about 70 burglaries but was too young for jail. By his mid-20s, he had earned four prison sentences.
These days he keeps a solid job with a sideline in social work helping jail inmates ease back into society. He said goodbye to the game years ago.
It's hard to reach our first home because road works have closed the street.
Homeowner A thinks the road workers deter prospective burglars.
"Nope," Corey says. "They make noise, so no-one can hear me breaking in. It's a good start."
However, danger lurks. It's a granny flat across the road and it could contain the last thing Corey wants - a retiree and potential witness.
Still, Corey is pleased when he sees the front door is concealed in an old- fashioned alcove. This gives him privacy to do his work. Straight away he recognises a deadlock.
Homeowner A thinks it's her best defence, but Corey thinks differently.
He pulls the door handle tightly towards him and gives the bottom corner of the door an exploratory kick. It gives easily and Corey reckons a confident kick in the right place would have us inside within seconds. He could also break a couple of the door's glass panels.
In a shocking move, he grabs one of the children's coats hanging by the door and uses it to demonstrate how he would shield his hand from breaking glass, then use a stash of coats to protect his body while squeezing through the gap.
It's a kick in the guts, but leaving out clothing or other belongings means you could be aiding your own break-in.
As we walk around the house, he taps on the bedroom windows. "This is thick, loud glass. I'm looking for something that'd make less noise."
The bifold doors at the rear of this house mean a burglar can take a good look, before deciding if it's worth a break- in. Corey spies a laptop. It's the only bait he needs.
"It's just like a job and that, right there, is the pay cheque. You don't think of the victims. You just see $500."
Homeowner A lets us in and it immediately becomes clear we have completely different eyes than a burglar.
In the time it takes for the homeowner and I to exchange pleasantries, Corey has scoped the room and spotted a handbag, smartphone and wallet.
In one of the children's rooms with a single bed and toys, Corey notices a fax machine. He recognises the trappings of a home business and bets there is cash in the house. Homeowner A confirms the family business means there is often cash hidden until she can go to the bank.
"OK, if I was going to look for cash, I'd start with the master bedroom, or if it was in here, I'd try . . ."
Corey points to a few spots, one of which is Homeowners A's traditional hiding spot - a place she had thought ingenious - tucked up along the inside runner of the sliding doors of this bedroom-office. Bingo!
If this was real, Corey would be up $7000 for less than 10 minutes' work.
"When I was younger, I'd take anything. I'd look in the freezer, booze cabinet, fridge, bathroom, whatever. By the end, I was only looking for currency and jewels. Asian people don't trust banks and they have gold jewellery, so I was doing them."
We park outside the next house that we are allowed to "rob".
Corey looks for clues. "OK, the mail is half sticking out of the slot. That means no-one is home. Boom! I'd be in.
"This is a flash house with a tidy garden. I know they're not home, because they just wouldn't let the newspaper lie in the garden like that.
"The job is to get off the street as quickly as possible, so if they locked or even just closed the gate, I'd have to climb over and you don't want to draw any attention to yourself. Nothing will stop a pro burglar, but a closed gate might stop about 40 per cent."
A car pulls up the neighbouring driveway, but neighbours had been warned to expect strange activity.
"Normally, I'd take off and I wouldn't come back to this street for weeks if someone saw me like that," Corey says.
Approaching the house, our first view is the lounge with a Christmas tree and a lone white chair in the corner. Corey reckons he can "smell the money", because a "flash" chair that looks only decorative is a sign of wealth.
Stickers warning of an alarm are a good deterrent and he can see alarm sensors in the master bedroom. However, the bottom corner of the front door is weak and gives with a nudge of the boot. At the rear of the property he spots dents in wooden window frame where a flathead screwdriver has been used to jemmy the windows.
Homeowner B was recently the victim of a break-in. Corey is not surprised, given the front door is "a joke".
A large flathead screwdriver and a pair of gloves are the tools of the trade. In the old days, a burglar mate would drive Corey to the corner of a street and drop him off. Corey would conceal the screwdriver up his sleeve - it fits perfectly wrist-to-elbow - and if he ever forgot to bring his own gloves, there are often gardening gloves lying around for free.
Then we spot our entry point. A window along the side of the house is locked using an old-fashioned latch, but as Corey repeatedly shoves the window frame, the latch starts to fall out. With patience and determination, it would come loose. Luckily for this homeowner, the neighbour's windows are close to the boundary fence so we move on.
Corey steps on the garden to peer into the master bedroom. If he chose to break into this window, he would scrub out the footprint in the dirt before using the heat- pump box to climb over and enter the window without leaving footprints.
Further north in the chosen suburb, we visit a brick house at the base of a cul- de-sac. Cul-de-sacs are usually off the menu because Corey suspects good neighbourly relations and this house is in view of two homes which look as if they belong to older people.
The basement garage means high windows and Corey says he wouldn't bother, but scaling the walls would be nothing for nimble, slippery 15-year-olds.
At the back are a deck and french doors. One of the glass panels is cracked. Corey says it will break with little effort or noise. He would use a piece of washing from Homeowner C's line to shield his hand against cuts and the mat inside would be perfect for softly catching shattered glass.
"What about dogs," asks Homeowner C. "Are they realistically a deterrent?"
"No, sorry," says Corey. "You can just bring food and make friends with them. Most robbing goes on during the day and dogs are left alone, so they're just happy to see someone."
We head to a side gate. "You won't get through there," Homeowner C says. "It's stuck."
Corey touches the latch and the gate opens. It's a lesson that everything changes over time, so if you think windows and gates are stuck, test them before you leave on holiday.
Corey sees an alarm in the main lounge, but its sensor would not detect movement in the second, formal lounge, so he would break into a side window, where he is hidden behind bushes.
"The longer you stay in a house, the more the adrenaline builds.
"Imagine your senses are already heightened and then an alarm goes off - one of those ones that screams louder inside the house. Those are the best alarms to have."
Homeowner D opens the door with a friendly greeting. Corey likes her watch. Is it diamonds or diamantes? He doesn't care either way. A lifetime ago, it would have been a "good little earn".
Homeowner D thinks the school over the back fence keeps her protected. Corey disagrees. Kids make noise, which masks his entry.
He tells Homeowner D she should be using the top and bottom locks for her french doors. "Otherwise, it's an easy kick and I'm in."
The backyard is exposed, but Corey says he would pull over the trampoline to give him cover. He goes to the conservatory and kneels by the cat door. It's locked, but he bats it a couple of times and it bounces enough for his fingers to unlatch it. His arm snakes in through the cat door to the door handle, which he unlocks. Hey presto! We're in.
The final house is everything the discerning homeowner and burglar desire in a property - privacy. Corey avoids the shingle walkway and leaps the small stream and crosses on grass so the neighbours don't hear his footsteps.
An unlocked tool shed provides the implements he needs. We find a sash window, Corey pushes gently in and up it goes. Homeowner E swears she locked the window, so we ask her to try again. One quick push and we are in again. Corey says most people try their locks from the inside, but they should test them from the outside too.
This house has aluminium window frames - no obstacle to the right-sized flathead screwdriver and elbow power.
We thank our final victim and leave.
I thank Corey for his "expertise". Later, he sends me a text.
"Trust me, it helped me lots just to see people in their home and to think I was once robbing them and their families.
"There was a sad feeling I did that to real people. Just made me happy to know I could still give in a small way."?