An ex-professional-burglar reveals a home’s weak spots

When it comes to what burglars look for when targeting a house, who better to lift the lid on trade secrets than ex-burglar turned security consultant Michael Fraser.

By Shilpa Ganatra 

Portrait of Michael Fraser
Michael Fraser

“Peer pressure,” explains Michael Fraser when asked what caused him to break into people’s houses as a teenager. “I was growing up in a care home and you had to be in with the strongest characters and do what they did, otherwise you’d be bullied. So I joined them when they went out to choose a target and burgled it.”

After an all-too-close brush with the law, Michael got scared straight, and veered away from a life of crime. Instead he used the knowledge he gained for good, helping to raise awareness of a home’s weak spots as a consultant and presenter of shows like the BBC’s Beat the Burglar. 

Burglars look for an easy way in – and out 

The lack of a lock 

With a detachment that time and wisdom bring, he recalls their method of choosing which home to break into. “How we’d choose houses is by walking along a street and having a little look. You’d see houses that didn’t have alarms or window locks. A lot of people show off their items through the front window,” he explains. If there was one that looked tempting, “we’d approach the house, and see if the second lock on the front door was in use. I pushed my foot against the door, and it only had to move 2mm to show that the bottom lock wasn’t engaged.” 

A peek through the letterbox 

Fraser says “Then we’d look through the letterbox. If there wasn’t a cage on the inside of the door, that’s a dead giveaway the homeowner doesn’t think much of security because letterbox fishing – when you pick up keys near the door from the outside using a pole – is a popular method of entry. And we knew that if the front of the property was weak, it’s guaranteed the back of the property was even weaker.”

Online maps have an unexpected benefit to burglars 

One change Fraser’s noticed since the days of his break-ins is that ‘internet shopping’ means most of this scoping can be done online. Using ‘street view’ services, burglars can check out security levels from the comfort of their own home and find out which might be viable candidates. It also helps them work out escape routes in advance.

Deterrents that don’t deter

A security dog, yes. A security alarm, no

It turns out that deterrents don’t work the way we might expect them to. While it’s certainly better to have a house alarm, they’re not foolproof. “If you’ve a got a sign saying ‘I love my cat’ or ‘Beware of the dog’, it tells the burglar you’ve actually got no alarm in place because of the pets moving around,” notes Fraser.

Burglars can spot a fake 

Fake alarms can backfire too. If the burglar works out that it’s fake – either by seeing there’s no connection, or noticing the box is dirty which means it’s not getting serviced – it sends a sign there’s something worth stealing but no working alarm.

“And even with a real, sophisticated alarm, it’s not going to take me long to punch in the numbers because the four numbers used will be worn compared to the rest of the keypad,” he adds.

Open windows equal opportunity

As many homeowners only turn on the alarm downstairs, it makes the upstairs less secure, so burglars look for open windows on the upper floor. “The perception is that the upstairs window is safe, so people leave them open a little,” says Fraser. “Usually it’s the bathroom window, which you can tell as it’ll be obscured, and they usually have pipes running down the exterior wall, which you can climb to get in through the bathroom. I’m quite a big guy and I can still get through very small spaces.”

Gates are a good idea 

Surprisingly, gates act as a small but significant deterrent. “If you do have a gate, don’t leave it open but make sure it’s shut. The burglar will have to touch it to open it, and believe it or not, they don’t like to do that. It’s a physical and psychological barrier.”

Burglars will take whatever they can get their hands on 

If a burglar gets inside a home – usually through the back of the property – one of the first things they’ll do is either latch the front door so the homeowner can’t get in, or put a bottle or broom by it. That’s not to block the door, but to make a noise if someone comes in. It buys the burglar vital seconds to flee the property. “The burglar never wants to get into a physical fight with you, because then the crime looked at more seriously,” says Fraser.

The burglars will thieve whatever they can get their hands on, be it jewellery, electronics or trainers.

Assuming no one’s in, “The burglar will search the downstairs very quickly, and they’ll search upstairs even quicker because nobody likes being trapped upstairs. Then they use shopping bags or suitcases to take the items. They’ll go out the back way normally,” says Fraser.

The burglars will thieve whatever they can get their hands on, be it jewellery, electronics or trainers . “If they’ve got there by train or bus they’ll take smaller items. If they’re in a van for specific items, they’ll take bigger stuff,” he says. “They’re not in the property long. There’s no emotion. They’ll tip the place. They’ll take whatever they can take because it doesn’t make any difference – everything is sold at a third of the price.”

Ask yourself, how would you get in? 

“I always say to people, ‘Right, stand outside. Now think about what you’d do if you lost your keys. How would you get in?’ Whatever you work out, the burglar will have worked it out quicker. Most of us don’t think that our property’s going to be burgled, and we don’t bother doing anything about it until after we’ve had that horrendous burglary happen.”

One way that modern tech can help is by installing alarms and cameras that are linked to your phone. That way, “you could be in Africa and someone’s breaking in in Manchester and you could confront them,” he says.

While burglars are becoming more sophisticated in the way they gain entry, most homes have weak points that we know about, but ignore.

Cover what you care about 

As well as making sure your home is as secure as it can be, check that you have your home insurance in place in case the worst happens. Don’t forget to check the policy to make sure that all your treasured items – especially the high-value ones – are covered. If you have home insurance with us, we’ll send an approved tradesperson to secure your home and make it safe after a break-in within two hours of you calling us*.

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* Achieved for 88% of valid Aviva Buildings Insurance claims from 1 March 2020 to 28 February 2021, where homes were unsecure or unsafe because of damage.