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House break-ins: The most common tricks burglars use and what you can do about it

We talked to a top criminologist about protecting your home from burglary.

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If you're worried about having your home broken into, you're not alone. According to a recent study by Safewise, burglary is the most feared property crime. And that fear isn't baseless: statistics from the FBI show that break-ins are common occurrences, with more than 1.1 million burglaries in 2019. And surprisingly, more burglaries occurred during the day than at night. The average loss from those burglaries was $2,661.

To understand how and why burglaries happen -- and how you can help prevent them -- I talked to James Lynch, a professor and former chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland. Many of the insights he provided were surprisingly simple and helpful.

Here's how burglars break into homes, and how to help limit the risk of being burglarized.

Most common methods of breaking in to your home

While it may sound simple, the most common way burglars enter homes is through an unlocked door or window. This is according to a survey of 86 inmates convicted of burglary, conducted by KGW-TV in Portland, Oregon.

"Professional burglars who have some skills will pick a target not just because it's vulnerable, but also because it's more likely to have the type of belongings that could easily be turned into cash," said Lynch.

"If there's evidence of affluence, where a burglar could get a good return on their investment, that type of home will attract burglars," Lynch continued. "But it depends on the burglar's level of sophistication. Some will go around without much planning and try doors until they find one that's open."

When doors and windows were locked, burglars surveyed said they preferred kicking in the door as opposed to breaking a window. Kicking a door in makes less noise than broken glass and doesn't pose a safety risk to the burglar.

Single-family homes in the middle of the street are more likely to be broken into than homes on the corner. This may be due to the greater visibility corner homes have. Conversely, in apartment buildings, Lynch pointed out that corner units with two sides of exposure have a greater likelihood of getting hit than units with only one side of exposure.

Studies in the UK point to a pattern of repeat victimization. "If you were burglarized once, there's a good chance you'll be burglarized again within the next 10 days," said Lynch. "There are two theories on this pattern. One is the burglars saw something they couldn't take the first time so they come back for it. The second is they've already found a way to gain entrance or get past your security and they want to capitalize on that before you have a chance to repair your door or window."

This pattern holds for near-repeat victimization. For instance, if the house next door gets burglarized, the probability of your house getting burglarized increases, according to Lynch.

"These patterns are consistent with burglary as an occupation," Lynch said.

In addition to doors and windows, accessing your home through your attached garage is another method burglars use. People often leave the door from the house to the garage unlocked and may not be as diligent about securing garage windows and walk-in doors.

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Simple as it seems, locking your door is one of the easiest ways to protect your house from break-ins.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

How to stop break-ins

There are several steps you can take to protect your home, loved ones and belongings from burglars. But the most important step is to secure your doors and windows.

Locks

As simple as locking doors and windows sounds, a survey by YouGov showed that 7% of people do not lock their doors when they go out, and 23% do not lock them when they're home. Locked doors and windows provide an added deterrent for break-ins.

"If people would just lock their doors and windows, that would prevent a lot of burglaries," Lynch said.

Another tip is to re-key your locks when you first move in: You don't know who the previous owner gave keys to. By re-keying your locks, you can know and control who has access to your home. This can also give you the opportunity to improve the quality of your locks. The Orlando Police Department recommends double-cylinder deadbolt locks.

For even more security, consider installing secondary locks on your windows. A track lock on vinyl or aluminum windows can prevent the window from freely moving up and down. And if you have an attached garage, be sure to lock the house door that accesses the garage.

Doors

Exterior doors should be solid enough that they're difficult to kick open. They should not have windows that can be broken, giving a burglar access to the lock. Install peepholes at eye level on both your front and back doors, and check them before opening your door to visitors.

Security systems

One of the best ways to deter burglars is with security cameras and home alarm systems. In the KGW survey, burglars said security cameras made them less likely to target a residence. They also said they would leave the property immediately if an alarm sounded.

As part of your security system, you may also want to install motion-activated lights. Having a well-lit exterior will help keep burglars away at night.

"There is a high positive correlation between having a security system and preventing burglaries," said Lynch. "If you don't have a home security system and you've been burglarized, it would be worth investing in one so you don't become a repeat victim."

These basic tactics are the best research-based methods for preventing burglaries.