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Ethical Engineering from Pragmasis

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How Criminals Think

This page provides some advice on security at home and the security of various types of property, using insight gained into the perspective of criminals. We also have more general advice on our Security FAQ, as well as other advice pages related to specific types of property.

How do criminals think? Is my house or my property more or less vulnerable?

The study of criminal methods is called criminology and it can give a very valuable insight into effective ways of combating domestic crime, such as house burglary. Professor Rachel Armitage, Professor of Criminology at the University of Huddersfield, presented some preliminary findings from some research on offender perspectives at the 2015 Police Secured-by-Design conference, further updated at the 2016 conference.

CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) is all about designing houses and housing developments to discourage criminal behaviour and is core to the ethos of the Police Secured-by-Design initiative. Prof. Armitage has been working with Chris Joyce of West Yorkshire Police on research that has been challenging assumptions and building the evidence base that will help to guide future projects and set government policy. This research is ongoing but it is already giving some tips on how serial criminals think. Here are some snippets that you may find interesting:

  • Don't assume criminals are stupid! Many effective criminals are not stupid at all and are very good at their 'job'. Some of the offenders interviewed in this research had committed over 1,000 burglaries. They got caught in the end, but that is still an awful lot of successful thefts.
  • Criminals can be surprisingly observant. They may notice things that most people will ignore. This can guide their targeting: which house to burgle and which house to leave. Being aware of this approach can help you to make your house and your property less appealing. See below.
  • Criminals differ, just like everyone else. One criminal will have different priorities and fears to another so don't assume they are all the same. Some criminals will carry more tools and will target specific things, such as high value bicycles or motorcycles. Others are looking for anything they can sell quickly at the pub. The more aware you are and the better your security is, the fewer and fewer thieves are able to steal your property.


House burglars assess risk in a variety of ways, but the following from this research gives some clues how some of them think:

  • Corner houses are particularly vulnerable. Different thieves have different ideas, but targeting corner houses is one approach that is very popular amongst them. A thief only has to consider a neighbour to one side with a corner house, and there is more perimeter/boundary to make his/her entry and exit. If you live in a corner house, you may be best advised to increase your security and be more aware that you are more likely to be on their radar.
  • Low fences and hedges between back gardens make access easy for thieves.
  • Footpaths between houses can help thieves, particularly footpaths that lead somewhere rather than those that are just a dead-end. Thieves feel less likely to be challenged if they are walking along a footpath towards some shops, for example.
  • Dead-end alleyways and enclosed paths help a thief with concealment, but they can also make thieves feel vulnerable. One burglar in this research actually avoided enclosed alleys because he thought he might be robbed there!
  • Cul-de-sac roads are generally not so attractive for thieves if they have to use the same route to leave as to enter. Thieves don't like to feel trapped or enclosed. However, the houses at the entrance to the cul-de-sac may be more vulnerable. (Also see below about private/exclusive estates.)
  • High fences and hedges can conceal a thief. You get more privacy, but so does the thief. Having neighbours that overlook your front/back/side garden can boost your security.
  • Some thieves will deliberately target times of day when people are likely to be less vigilant, such as 5-6pm when people are arriving home, tired, and may not bother locking doors and securing motorbikes & bicycles straight away. While you're having a cup of tea, a thief could be stealing your bike!
  • Thieves don't like gravel on paths and drives! Anything that makes their movements more noticeable is bad for a thief and good for you.
  • Thieves may notice things, such as a dog bowl or dog toys in the garden. Thieves don't like dogs!
  • Thieves can be very good at identifying good or poor security. Door cylinders that are easy to snap give them a quick and almost silent way into many houses. Thieves can often see the difference from a distance.
  • Burglar alarms make little difference to a thief, unless they are higher grade/monitored systems, such as are common with ADT and similar companies.
  • If you have extended your house, have you also extended your alarm? Thieves often find that the majority of house extensions are not protected by the alarm as the system has not been extended.
  • If they are not disturbed and feel safe, some thieves will spend a surprising amount of time breaking into a house, e.g. 30 minutes.
  • A rubbish bin that is obviously full can make a thief think that there are new items in the house that are worth stealing.
  • A house that is being refurbished also inspires thoughts of new property to steal.
  • Thieves may notice if the windows are just for the kitchen and the toilet - they are less likely to be spotted from rooms that are not used so much or that have frosted glass.
  • Thieves don't like net curtains as they can't tell if they are being watched.
  • Ladders, bins and low roofs all make it easier for thieves to move between properties and to make an entry through upstairs windows, etc.
  • Even thieves have morals, sometimes! Council housing is excluded by some house burglars as they don't want to steal from people that are more hard-up than them. Ditto bungalows and old-people's homes, sometimes. Many thieves may avoid places like these, but there are some that will regard them as easy targets.
  • Private roads and exclusive estates are often regarded as likely to hold richer pickings for thieves.

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Suggestions for making your house and the property within and around less appealing to thieves

We can apply the above findings to create some guidelines to help avoid unwanted attention for your home and your property:

  • Be aware of the notes above in connection with your house. If the side of your house has just a kitchen or toilet window and is concealed from neighbours, it may be an easy way for a thief to approach and perhaps break into your house.
  • If you live in a corner house or an isolated house, do as much as you can to boost your security as you may be the most attractive to thieves. This may be particularly the case if you are also in an exclusive area.
  • Ensure you have good quality door cylinders, particularly if your local Crime Reduction Officer tells you that cylinder snapping is common in your area. Certain newer Euro cylinders, particularly diamond standard cylinders for uPVC doors, are much harder to attack and will deter thieves.
  • Use good quality security on your valuables and on your shed and/or garage door. We have more detailed advice on bicycle security, motorcycle security, shed security and door security.
  • Lock up your bike immediately as you get home! Avoid leaving house doors open and avoid leaving car keys visible and near doors (thieves will often use a rod with a hook to fish for keys through a letterbox).
  • If you have extended your house, make sure to also extend your alarm and make it obvious that you have done so, such as by fitting a live bell box to the extension itself.
  • Consider a higher-grade and ideally monitored alarm system from a well known company.
  • Get a dog bowl and leave it visible in your garden, even if you haven't got a dog! Don't get a small pink bowl with "Fifi" written on it - the bigger, the better! Make a thief think that you've got a dog, a big dog. Odd dog toys in the garden also help to give the desired impression.
  • Avoid having rubbish bins that are obviously full, even on the bin collection day. Take some time to squash things down so they will fit properly into the bin. Consider taking the packaging for expensive or large items to a council dump yourself instead of putting them in or beside the household bin.
  • Don't leave ladders or spades etc lying around outside. Thieves often use a spade to break open the door on a shed. Make sure that tools are locked away inside the shed or garage.
  • Discuss with your neighbours about planting hedges with spiky bushes, such as hawthorn, pyracantha, berberis, holly. These species can also be good for wildlife. It may be better if the hedges or fences are not so high as to conceal the view and prevent conversation with your neighbours, but if hedges are difficult to climb over, that will make it much less appealing to thieves.
  • Consider covering some areas with gravel around your house/property.
  • Just because you live in social housing or a bungalow, don't assume thieves will leave you alone!
  • Be wary if you are in a private or exclusive estate as thieves may assume your house is worth burgling.
  • Neighbours overlooking your property as well as motion-triggered lighting can reduce the time a thief may spend trying to gain entry.
  • Your neighbours may be less aware of security than you so encouraging them to improve their security as well as you improving yours will help to make the whole area less appealing to thieves. It takes effort and can cost money to improve your security, but if you can make your whole neaighbourhood more secure, there is more chance you will all go off the radar for the local criminals. You should still remain vigilant, but avoiding any easy targets helps everyone in the neighbourhood.

This university research project is not finished but it is important work and there may be further findings that will help all of us to reduce crime.

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