When we think of the term ‘home invasion’ we tend to associate it with red-faced commentators on Fox-News. It is tempting to dismiss the tales of armed assailants waiting to smash into our homes to hold us hostage and to plunder our belongings as something that happens to other people in other countries (perhaps Mexico or Honduras).
Sadly however, this is not the case and the UK saw 1287 ‘home invasions’, or aggravated burglaries as they are known in the UK, occurring between 2014 and 2015. January 18th 2016 saw one such attack occurring in Birmingham where machete armed burglars broke into a house and stole £8000 of jewellery from a terrified family. Another attack on a home in the Surrey area on the 19th January led to a family being attacked with crowbars whilst the burglars made off with a stash of gold.
Ten to fifteen years ago crimes such as the above would have more commonly taken place in locations such as Mayfair and Belgravia. These areas were once favoured hunting grounds for professional criminals due to the wealth of the residents, but this is now no longer the case, mostly due to vastly increased security. This does not mean that the rich of London are immune from crime. December 2015 saw an aggravated burglary at the home of Geraldine Winner (the wife of late film director Michael Winner). The widow was beaten, threatened and gagged while the attacker made off with jewellery and fine art. Despite this, aggravated burglaries on the wealthy of London have become more infrequent and as the ultra-rich begin to slip out of criminals’ reach, new targets and locations begin to be selected.
In the present day, the most common targets of aggravated burglary tend to be individuals who live in the Home Counties or just inside the M25 commuter belt living in homes that range between £1million & £6million. They tend to be professionals such as lawyers, doctors or business owners who have two cars, two children and do their shopping at Waitrose. As these individuals have never been under any specific threat, they assume criminals will never target them.
Unfortunately it is this optimistic attitude towards security that unfortunately makes them ideal targets, as they will be unaware of the threats against them and will seldom (if ever) take security precautions.
WHAT DEFINES AGGRAVATED BURGLARY?
What defines an aggravated burglary (as opposed to the regular kind) is that the homeowner is present when the burglary takes place as well as the usage of a “firearm, imitation firearm, weapon of offence, or any explosive” used (or threatened to be used) during the course of a normal burglary.
Criminals that specialize in committing aggravated burglary tend not to be opportunists. Instead they tend to be professionals who work in groups and for whom crime is a way of life. There are several reasons for this: the first is that the use of violence results in much longer jail sentences, making the business of aggravated burglary a high risk one; the second is that for any group to be successful not just once, but several times without getting caught, requires care, patience and planning. Finally the increased media and police attention that comes from committing aggravated burglaries means that for a criminal group to be successful they need to be surprisingly disciplined to avoid capture.
THE TARGETING PHASE
Due to the greater risks for the criminals involved in committing aggravated burglaries, a significant amount of planning and research has to go in to every single crime as it only takes a single mistake for law enforcement to be given crucial clues that lead to an arrest. As well as this, criminals want to ensure that they select the ‘right’ target, one that has the highest reward for the lowest possible risk. After all, if one is going to face a significant jail sentence it should be for a suitable reward.
For a successful aggravated burglary to be carried out, a group must first pick a selection of targets, assess the risks involved and begin the planning process, all of which initially starts online.
The all-pervasive nature of cyberspace and the Internet has meant that criminals have never had greater access into the lives of their potential targets than they do presently. By using websites like 192.com criminals can, in many instances, check who is living at an address. A small fee to the Land Registry or even a browse through websites such as Zoopla can bring up floor plans and information on the value of the house. Once names have been linked to addresses, a quick search of Companies House can reveal the names of related business directors and the potential value of their companies and assets. Finally, Google Maps and Google Street View can put you at the gates of a target’s house or view it from the air, allowing in some instances for security features to be mapped without having to visit the area in person.
All of the above techniques are (in part) similar to the methods that security and intelligence companies use to help their clients, but it would be naïve to suggest that they are the only ones.
Without leaving their desk, a skilled individual (legitimate or not) can often find the following about an individual all from the comfort of their home or office:
- Their place of address (192.com and the Land Registry)
- The value and floor-plan of their place of residence (Zoopla, Rightmove and the Land Registry)
- Any companies they might have and the estimated value of such companies via accounting information (Companies House)
- Places of work (Google and Companies House)
- Patterns of movement (Instagram, Facebook, online social and conventional media)
It is for reasons like the above that make publications such as Hello Magazine and Okay Magazine two of the most popular subscriptions in the British prison system! This is not due to inmates’ interest in Angelina Jolie’s latest adoption (though I’m sure they find her devotion to the less fortunate touching), but because it gives insight and information into the homes of the wealthy, all of which is very valuable to those criminals beginning the targeting phase of a job.
Once the criminals have a rough idea of the areas that they might be targeting or alternatively have a specific individual (or group of individuals) in mind, criminals can begin to establish what is known as a pattern of life. Our pattern of life is the ‘rhythm’ that governs our daily existence; when we get up, when we go to work and when we go out to socialize. Modern life forces us into easily predictable routines, where criminals rely on a predictable pattern of life to be able to effectively target potential victims. Using the information gathered during the target phase as well as observing their potential targets and their homes, criminals can build up ‘dossiers’ on multiple targets and then pick the ones that indicate the greatest chance for reward with the lowest possible risk.
Once criminals have established a pattern of life, they can work out the best moment to strike. For aggravated burglars this is not during the night or the early hours, instead mornings and afternoons are much more favoured. This is because at night, the roads are clearer and police more active. But, during rush hour in the morning and evening, response times are longer, police are busier and the shifts between their morning and evening at their station may be changing.
When attacking a property, speed and shock are crucial, criminals will often force entry when the homeowner is opening the door to go inside. Once access has been gained, the criminals will use violence or the threat of violence to gain access to valuables before making a swift exit. Valuables will often be buried and hidden nearby to be recovered weeks (or even months) after a burglary has taken place. This is to ensure the chances of the group being caught with stolen property are lowered and that when the group retrieves the valuables, the heat will have died down.
It may seem that there is little defence against such groups who are both intelligent and well equipped, but this in truth is not the case. Individuals can take numerous steps to help safeguard themselves online and off and a simple place to start is to remove yourself from 192.com, this can be done by filling out a CO1 form.
Minimizing one’s online exposure is also a simple but effective tactic, though abdicating from social media is a touch extreme. One should be careful to ensure that the only information that exists online is information that is necessary for maintaining one’s social and business life.
It is also possible for vigilant homeowners to disrupt the targeting phase of a criminal group. Although there is little one can do regarding the online stage of the targeting phase (barring the removal of information from the web) there is a great deal that can be done to prevent or disrupt the physical targeting phase. This can include everything from increasing the security of one’s home to make it more of an unappealing target to spotting potential observers and informing the police. Most criminals will break off an attempted burglary or aggravated burglary if they feel that their targets have become aware of them as it increases the risk to unacceptable levels.
Although anonymity is an excellent form of defence, physical deterrent is often just as effective. When planning to commit a crime, criminals (using all the tools described above) will create a risk-profile of their prospective targets.
This means that the best way to keep one’s property safe to raise the risk above what a criminal group would likely deem to be acceptable. Though this will not likely stop a crime from taking place, it displaces the criminal threat to others around you. Though you may not be able to stop an aggravated burglary from taking place, you can take steps to ensure you are not the target. This tactic, though perhaps slightly cold-blooded is one of the most effective ways to keep one’s property safe.
THE IMPORTANCE OF INSURANCE
For many victims, though the police will doubtless try their best and security precautions such as the use of DNA marking on belongings will help recover stolen items, in reality often the only way of recovering the value of the lost assets is insurance. Just as important as the value of anything taken is the psychological trauma that an event such as an aggravated burglary causes. The event is an extremely traumatic experience for the victims and can leave them distressed for months afterwards. In some instances, this can lead to post-traumatic stress disorders as well as the physical effects. Counselling can help provide effective coping strategies. In some cases, even a child who wasn’t present during the attack can be affected afterwards. Failure to seek professional help could lead to longer-term issues.
Numerous specialist insurers have begun to recognize that the effects of crimes like aggravated burglary extend far beyond the financial impact and have taken a more holistic approach. Many brokers now have specific cover for aggravated burglary in their home policies. Expenses for psychiatric counselling, lost salaries, temporary relocations and for additional security to be installed in the affected home can all be provided.
Yet despite the financial and psychological help and security that some insurers can provide, many families do not have insurance that will protect them in the event of aggravated burglary.
The issue of under-insurance is widespread and according to Insurance Group Zurich, 80% of UK commercial properties are under-insured. Though reducing insurance coverage may be seen as a sensible method of cutting costs to a household or business (especially when times are tight) in truth it can lead to catastrophe should the worst occur.
Human beings tend to have a comparatively optimistic outlook on the world in general and will often maintain hope that a situation will improve even when it almost certainly will not. The combination of natural optimism and a tight budget often make it tempting to simply ignore insurance as an unnecessary cost. Our optimism in the world around us is also reflected by the fact that though one in five new homeowners will change their bathroom or kitchen, only one in twelve will invest in additional home security .
Aggravated burglary is not an issue that is going to go away and as the UK (and many other nations) becomes more unequal the gulf between those who have and those who have not will only deepen. With combined government cuts steadily eating into police budgets, you are left with a situation ideal for criminal growth. As we stare into a more unequal and unstable future it would seem sensible to build our walls slightly higher and perhaps take another look at our home insurance policy.
Harry Chenevix-Trench is the Intelligence Manager at Blackstone Consultancy and specializes in open source research and risk analysis.