Profile of a Burglar

Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics

Burglary is defined as unlawful or forcible entry or attempted entry of a residence.  This crime usually, but not always, involves theft.  The illegal entry may be by force, such as breaking a window or slashing a screen, or may be without force by entering through an unlocked door or an open window.  As long as the person entering has no legal right to be present in the structure a burglary has occurred.  Furthermore, the structure need not be the house itself for a burglary to take place; illegal entry of a garage, shed, or any other structure on the premises also constitutes household burglary.  If breaking and entering occurs in a hotel or vacation residence, it is still classified as a burglary for the household whose member or members were staying there at the time the entry occurred.

KGW News, Portland, Oregon
October 2016

How did you typically break into a home or apartment?

Most inmates broke in through an unlocked door or window.  Several burglars kicked the door open.
“I would kick in the door rather than break glass. Loud bangs are better than loud glass breaking, plus you run the risk of getting cut,” said one inmate.

Once inside, what was the first thing you looked to steal?

Jewelry, electronics, cash and credit cards are all attractive to burglars. Inmates also added collectibles and guns.  “NRA sticker on car bumper = Lots of guns to steal,” wrote one burglar.

Where did you look for hidden valuables?

Most burglars started by searching the master bedroom for valuables, then moved through the rest of the house.  “Everywhere!  From the stove and freezer, to the fish tank and toilet tank, book shelves and in boxes of cereal,” said an inmate.

What time of the day did you prefer to break in?

Burglars prefer breaking in early morning or afternoon.  “Between 12:30 pm and 2:30 pm. Anyone that was home for lunch should be gone by then and most kids should all still be in school,” wrote a convicted burglar.

Did home protection or security signs posted outside the home deter you?

Burglars had mixed opinions about home security signs. Some burglars said it didn’t faze them. Others said they knew how to disable alarms or avoid setting them off.

Did pets in the home, like a dog, make you think twice?

If a homeowner had a big, loud dog most burglars would stay away.  Smaller dogs don’t seem to bother them.  “Dogs are a deal breaker for me,” said one inmate.  “Big breeds, home protectors are the best to keep people out.”

Did you typically knock on the front door before breaking into a home?

Yes. All of the inmates who responded said they would knock on the front door before breaking in.
If someone answered the door, what would you do or say?

“Act like I was lost or looking for a friend.”  “I would approach the resident as though they had posted an ad on Craigslist.”  “Say wrong house, sorry and thank you.”  “Ask if they’d seen my dog and leave.”  “Sometimes I would wear nice clothing and print a questionnaire off the Internet and carry a clipboard and see if they could spare a moment for an anonymous survey.”

If a home alarm system went off, what would you do?

Most intruders said they would leave immediately if a security alarm went off.  “I would try and turn it off or get the hell out of there,” said one burglar.

If there was a security camera visible, would it keep you from breaking in?

Generally, burglars agreed security cameras were a deterrent. But some said it also likely signaled there were valuables inside the home.

Did lights on in the home make you think twice?

Responses were mixed regarding lights on in a home. Some said it was a deterrent.  But one burglar said the combination of lights on and blinds closed created an attractive location.  “Would drive through upper class neighborhoods looking for many things, like porch light on with all window blinds closed,” wrote one inmate.

If you heard a radio or TV on inside the home, would you still break in?

Most burglars feared someone might be home if they heard a radio or TV. They wouldn’t break in.
“Absolutely not,” wrote a burglar.

Would it make a difference if there was a vehicle in the driveway?

As a homeowner, this is one of the best precautions you can take.  Almost all of the burglars said they’d think twice if there was a car in the driveway.  “Most of the time that is a sure-fire sign of someone being home,” wrote an inmate.

What was your ideal target for a burglary?

Burglars don’t want to be seen.  They looked for homes with big fences and overgrown trees or bushes.
“Home away from other homes, blind spots, older window frames, cheap wooden doors,” wrote a burglar.  “Large trees, bushes or shrubs around the home, or very reserved and conservative neighbors,” wrote another inmate.  “Nice home with nice car = A person with money,” another said.

Did you ever do surveillance on your target?

The responses were mixed. Some burglars did surveillance before a burglary, while others did not.

If you did surveillance, what were you trying to figure out?

Of those burglars who did surveillance, most agreed they were looking for the best opportunity to break-in.  “Who lives in the home, what are their weekday schedules (weekends are too unpredictable), what they drive, is there a dog, a hidden key,” wrote one inmate.  “What time the house would be empty and for how long,” wrote another.

What is the one thing homeowners can do to avoid being burglarized?

Burglars suggest homeowners make their property visible with good lighting and trimmed bushes and trees.  You should get to know your neighbors and alert police if you see anything suspicious.  “In my opinion, I think homeowners should always leave a TV or radio on,” said one inmate.  “Get a camera and make it visible!” wrote another.  “Put bars on your windows and doors, get an alarm, keep an extra car in the driveway, keep lights, TVs and radios on when you leave your home,” read one questionnaire.  “Home alarm, know your neighbor so they can report suspicious people around the neighborhood,” said a burglar.

Many of those inmates who responded were remorseful.  They don’t want homeowners to be victimized.
“Thank you for giving me the chance to help and give back something that will actually help people,” wrote one inmate.  “I’ll never be able to give back the sense of security I destroyed but I can help prevent others from losing theirs,” said another convicted burglar.

UNC Charlotte
December 2012

Building on past research, this study closely examined the decision-making processes of 422 randomly-selected, incarcerated male and female burglars across three states (North Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio).  The following are some of the central findings: 

What motivates burglars to engage in burglary? 

First, it is clear that many in our sample of burglars were seasoned offenders.  The overall sample of respondents reported being arrested from 1 to over 100 times in the past (mean = 12.9 arrests).  Age of first burglary arrest ranged from 9 to 50 (mean age = 23.6) while the reported age when first engaging in a burglary ranged from 6 to 50 (mean age = 21.8). 

It is also evident that some burglars were involved in other forms of serious crime over the course of their offending careers.  About 8% reported that they had been charged with homicide, 12% with robbery, and 7% with assault at some point in their past.  On the other hand, over 54% reported that burglary/breaking-and-entering was the most serious crime that they had been charged with to date. 

Past literature suggests there are multiple motivations for engaging in burglary including drugs, money, foolishness, and thrill-seeking.  Within this sample it was quite apparent that drug and alcohol use were, at minimum, correlated to involvement in burglary and, in many cases, the direct cause, and a primary motivator, for males and females alike. 

Within the entire sample, 88% of respondents indicated that their top reason for committing burglaries was related to their need to acquire drugs (51%) or money (37%), although many reported needing the money to support drug problems.  Crack or powder cocaine and heroin were the drugs most often reportedly used by these offenders and these substances were often being used in combination with other substances, including marijuana and alcohol, during burglary attempts.  

 When asked how income accumulated from burglaries would be spent, drug use was the most frequently reported answer (64%) followed by living expenses (49%), partying (35%), clothes/shoes (31%), gifts (17%), and gambling (5%). 

What factors are considered by burglars during target selection? 

About half of the burglars reported engaging in at least one residential burglary and about a third reported engaging in at least one commercial burglary during the year before their most recent arrest. 

Most of the burglars relied on the use of a vehicle; more often it was their own, but sometimes the vehicle belonged to a family member or a friend.  About one in eight reported using a stolen vehicle during the course of a burglary. 

There was substantial and wide variation in the distance driven prior to engaging in a burglary, with some traveling hundreds of miles or across state lines (presumably in an effort to minimize identification and capture) and others reporting walking or driving just a couple blocks away (range .5 miles to 250 miles). 

Just under a third of the offenders reported that they collected information about a potential target prior to initiating a burglary attempt, suggesting that most burglars are impulsive to some degree.  About 12% indicated that they typically planned the burglary, 41% suggested it was most often a “spur of the moment” event/offense, and the other 37% reported that it varied.  When considering the amount of time dedicated to planning, when planning did occur, nearly half (49%) suggested that the burglary occurred within one day and 16% indicated that the planning process took place for 1-3 days.  There were not significant differences in substance use involvement between those who were more deliberate planners and those who were not. 

Just over a fourth of burglars typically worked alone and approximately the same proportion reported never burglarizing alone.  Among those who worked with others, most committed burglaries with friends and/or spouses/significant others, although nearly one in eight reported working with other family members. 

What deters burglars from burglarizing specific targets? 

Close proximity of other people (including traffic, those walking nearby, neighbors, people inside the establishment, and police officers), lack of escape routes, and indicators of increased security (alarm signs, alarms, dogs inside, and outdoor cameras or other surveillance equipment) was considered by most burglars when selecting a target. 
Within a broad set of potential target-hardening deterrents, alarms and outdoor cameras and other surveillance equipment were considered by a majority of burglars. 

About 60% of the burglars indicated that the presence of an alarm would cause them to seek an alternative target altogether.  This was particularly true among the subset of burglars that were more likely to spend time deliberately and carefully planning a burglary. 

Most burglars would try to determine if an alarm was present before attempting a burglary.  Among those that determined that an alarm was present after initiating a burglary, about half would discontinue the attempt. 

What techniques do burglars use when engaging in burglary? 

Most burglars reported entering open windows or doors or forcing windows or doors open.  Only about one in eight burglars reported picking locks or using a key that they had previously acquired to gain entry. 

About one in five burglars reported cutting telephone or alarm wires in advance. 

Screwdrivers were the most commonly reported tool that burglars carried, followed by crow bars and hammers. 

Most burglars (79%) reported an interest in acquiring cash during their burglaries, followed by jewelry (68%), illegal drugs (58%), electronics (56%) and prescription drugs (44%). 

About 65% of those who stole items worked to dispose of those items immediately.  For those that held onto items, most were usually stored at a friend’s house or, less often, stashed somewhere else including a storage unit or an empty building or vacant house. 

In terms of item disposition, most burglars reported selling the items to strangers, pawn shops or second-hand dealers, or friends or trading the items for something else.  Smaller numbers of burglars reported selling items online, to family members, or at auctions, and still others reported trading the items directly for drugs. 

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