It must be January, when the joy of Santa's visit turns to fears of home invasion. And justifiably so, it seems. January's a hot month for burglaries, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's annual Uniform Crime Report (www.fbi.gov/ucr/ 98cius. htm), accounting for 8.9 percent of the annual break-ins. Only July, with 9 percent, accounts for a larger share.
Most of the people whose holiday bounty is protected by alarms live in the South: 16 percent of homes there have a burglar alarm, 2 points higher than the national average, according to Security Distributing & Marketing's 1998 "Consumer Survey on Home Security" (www.sdmmag.com). It's a good thing, too, because that's where 42.8 percent of the nation's burglaries take place. The Northeast and West each claim a 14 percent home-alarm penetration, despite the fact that their share of burglaries overall varies widely: 13.1 percent in the Northeast, but 23.2 percent for the West. Oddly, the Midwest (or "North Central" region) has a higher incidence of burglaries (20.9 percent) than the Northeast, but has a lower alarm penetration rate - just 9 percent of homes have burglar alarms, the country's lowest.
SDM's survey put the national penetration rate for home security systems at 14 percent, but the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association (www.alarm.org) claimed that by the end of 1998, more than one in five homes would be electronically protected. The higher figure may be attributable to the fact that, whereas the SDM survey asked specifically about burglar alarms, the NBFAA number referred to homes that were simply "electronically protected" - which could mean anything from elaborate infrared technology to a Furby Baby left lying in a doorway.
Not surprisingly, the more expensive the home the more likely it is to have an alarm. The SDM study found that while just 9 percent of homes valued below $100,000 boasted alarms, 39 percent of those $300,000 and up were protected. (The percentage of renters who have burglar alarms was just 5 percent, which indicates that neither landlord nor tenant cares much about the tenant's belongings.) Home security systems also seem to go hand-in-hand with an affinity for other electronic gear: Homeowners with personal computers, online services, or cellular phones are more likely to spring for a burglar alarm than the average Joe.
So if just 14 percent of U.S. homes have security systems, what is everyone else doing to deter burglars? A 1999 survey of 12 cities conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services focused on urban home security (www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/cvpcs 98.htm). It revealed that the No. 1 action to secure homes, taken by 61 percent of those polled, was "watching out for others' safety." This is understandable, given that one of the most popular forms of urban recreation is "watching your neighbors through binoculars."
The second-most-common safety measure, at 41 percent, was "installing extra locks," which may be closely related to "increasing futility," since locks aren't any good unless you use them: A BJS analysis of property crime found that in six of ten completed burglaries, the intruder got in through an unlocked door or open window (www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/cvict_c.htm#property).
The third-most-common method - installing security systems - came in at 18 percent, ahead of the 14 percent who said they owned some sort of weapon and the 15 percent who claimed they owned guard dogs. If you find the dog-owner figure high, remember that any canine capable of raising a ruckus can be considered a guard dog: Of the convicted burglars who responded to a survey by an Oklahoma television station, 44 percent said that a barking dog would prevent them from breaking into a building, whereas only 13 percent said they would be deterred by lots of locks (www.kwtv.com/ investigators/burgsum.htm).
"Are We Safe?" - a 1999 survey conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide for the National Crime Prevention Council and ADT Security Services - found that 10 percent of those polled had installed a home security system within the past year. (Results can be found at www. ncpc.org and www.adt. com). For 52 percent of respondents, however, security innovation meant making an extra effort to lock their doors. Far more people prefer to safeguard their homes decoratively: 83 percent rely on "good exterior lighting" and 75 percent keep their hedges trimmed. Do burglars have an aversion to shaggy shrubs? Who knows? But unkempt bushes do afford nice hiding places when that pesky Neighborhood Watch comes by. This month, homeowners might want to replace those twinkling exterior Christmas lights with a nice, floodlit Louis J. Freeh topiary.