Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Criminal Choice Behind Burglary

by Tom Adair author of the 2012 Crime Thriller The Scent of Fear.

As a former CSI I tried to understand how the criminal thinks. It's impossible to consider every single motivation but there are some generalities that may aid investigators in uncovering certain clues. As an author I find this insight very valuable because weaving this mindset into your storyline gives a sense of realism I think readers respond to. Everyone wants to understand motive. It's how we begin to make sense of things and challenge our world view. As a reader I want to understand the motivations of the killer, victim, cops, and others too. It helps me understand why they do what they do.

I've talked to a lot of victims that ask me a simple question; "why me?". It's not a dumb question. While it is true that some victim's may just be int he wrong place at the wrong time (like a shark attack), others increase their vulnerability to crime and criminals (like joining a gang). So it's helpful to consider what types of factors criminals may consider when choosing a victim. I thought it would be simpler to frame the discussion within the topic of burglary. In truth, some of the selection criteria can be applied to other crimes as well but let's just stick with burglary for now.

Burglars typically choose a place to burglarize for one of three reasons. These are broad categories with some cross over but they will serve for the discussion.
  1. Inside knowledge (intelligence)
  2. Vulnerability with reward
  3. Opportunity (wrong place wrong time)
Inside Knowledge: 
In the military this is called intelligence. You'd be amazed how often a burglary can be tied to intelligence. The world war two warning of  "loose lips sink ships" actually works with criminals too. If criminals find out that you have things of value they may want to look for an opportunity to take them. I often say that many criminals want "easy" so you have to do your best to avoid helping them. Here are some of the biggest sources of "intelligence leaks" in the household.
  1. Children. Children are the worst. Kids love to tell stories and brag to their friends. "We just got a new computer", "My mom just inherited a bunch of money", "I just got a brand new XBOX", etc. Even when talking to 'trusted' friends the conversation may be overheard by others.
  2. Social Media. I am always amazed at people that tell the twitterverse that they are on vacation. They get on Facebook and say "Hey! We're a thousand miles away from our house and NO ONE is watching it". Many don't have the smarts to lie and say something like "Thanks God my brother is on leave from the Marine Corps and is watching the house with an attack dog!".
  3. Visitors to the house. This can be anyone from your son's new "gangsta friend", ex-boyfriend, or repairmen. We often don't consider what a stranger might see in our homes like jewelry being left out, or even where we keep money (when you pay a serviceman).
Vulnerability with Reward:
I link these two together because the burglar is more likely to exploit a vulnerability if they know there is a reward for their risk. One of the biggest vulnerabilities is easy access to the residence or business. Some of the biggest culprits are;
  1. Open garage doors
  2. Open windows or unlocked doors (houses and vehicles)
  3. Items of value with easy access (like a purse or wallet left on the front seat of your car)
Other things can include ladders propped up against houses (for easy access to second story windows that are usually left unlocked) or newspapers or fliers piled up outside (indicating you're on vacation). The reward/risk issue is equally important. Wanna guess a percentage of how many homes displaying signs like "Dangerous dog", "Video Surveillance Used" or "Trespassers will be shot, survivors will be shot again" get burglarized compared to ones not displaying butterfly flags? Most criminals want "easy". Now all of this changes if your house is the only place to get what they want. So if you have a rare and valuable item (like the Hope Diamond) then the motivated criminal will look for a way to get it but, that is usually not the case. However, the higher the value of the item being sought, the more risk one may take to get it.

This embodies the "wrong place, wrong time" meme. Obviously, the best way to avoid being in the wrong place is being more selective about the places we visit. I spend a fair amount of time in the back country of the Rocky Mountains. I feel much safer walking through the woods at midnight than an alley in many metropolitan cities. Some places are "wrong" for some folks no matter the time of day. Your characters may increase their risk of being attacked (mugged) because they are forced to go places they wouldn't normally choose. Maybe your PI has to go into a seedy bar or maybe somebody gets arrested and goes to jail for a few days. These exposures put them at increased risk. They may survive without incident but the tension is still there. From a criminal perspective it is literally the fly in the spider net. They simply wait for some unsuspecting victim to cross paths with them. The single attractive woman or suburban teenager with the iPod that has to ride a subway through the bad part of town at midnight.

Considering these factors when developing your plots, characters, and dialog will help explain the motivations of your characters and give a perspective for the reader when digesting the story. Remember, the motive has to align with the risk/reward calculus to be believable. A criminal won't rob a homeless man with a shopping cart full of old smelly clothes, empty liquor bottles, and a dead fish ;).


  1. You always manage to scare, inform, and entertain at the same time. Thanks for another great post.

  2. I know of someone who leaves a very large, spiked, dog collar by their back door as part of their burglar dissuasion program. At the time, they had three cats.

    Another awesone post, Tom. Thanks for the ideas!

  3. Great post! I'm a PI as well as an author, and I can tell you that in my experience with my area, most burglars are teenagers, and people with groups of teens frequenting their homes are the most likely to be burglarized. I've known victims who refused to believe that a "friend of the family" was responsible, even after he was caught fencing the stolen items.

  4. Sorry to be so late to the comments. I'll never forget the time an ex-con came and spoke with my church group. He was truly turning his life around, but he let us know it was a hard climb, all the way. He said, "You have to understand that criminals do not think like you do. It's not that we don't think you're in our social group - we don't think you're in our species. You are a mark, no more and no less."

    It's an interesting mindset to try to write.

  5. Wow, Gayle, how chilling to know that's what cons think.

    Great post, Tom.

  6. Sorry for the late check-in, as well. Writing gets in the way these days.

    This is great info, Tom, the kind that adds layers of detail to a plot and makes it far more interesting and believable. So often we (meaning I) forget how important it is to pay attention to the finer details because in the end, they make a huge difference for the story. I wish I had you sitting desk-side as I write. All that information would be invaluable.


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