Break-ins can cause emotional and financial distress even for those with everything insured. But with the security products and initiatives available, there is no reason to fall victim to crime, says Christine Seib
A black-clad man creeps through the garden of a house in an affluent suburb, house-breaking tools in the holdall by his side. Some quiet tinkering, then he climbs through a window, eyes darting over silver and antiques.
Suddenly, he hears the wail of an alarm and feels water spraying from a fixture in the ceiling. The burglar flees, wet and empty-handed, but confident there is no way of connecting him with this attempted break-in. He was unseen, so no witnesses. He was wearing gloves, so no fingerprints. He took nothing, so he cannot be traced through the goods.
However, his confidence is misplaced. The "water" that covered him was impregnated with DNA exclusive to that particular house. It will stick to his skin for a couple of months, glowing bright yellow under ultraviolet light. He is marked as an intruder, denial is useless.
Sounds a little too much like science fiction? Perhaps, but the use of Smartwater's liquid synthetic DNA solution has already led to 90 burglary convictions.
Smartwater Europe managing director Phil Cleary says the most common use of the product is to paint a small amount on to valuable goods, making them instantly recognisable when they reappear for sale. The spray system is mainly used by warehouses, supermarkets and affluent individuals, because it needs to work with an excellent alarm system.
Smartwater is now used to mark every new Honda motorcycle. It has also been credited with cutting burglaries on some council estates by up to 30% when trialled by local police.
The details of the owner of each unique DNA formula are stored with the Home Office, and most police stations are equipped with ultra-violet lights to check for Smartwater. "You've got to remove every speck of it before you're safe from the police."
Simple solutions such as blocks and bolts - favoured by many "unimaginative" insurers - are described tartly by Cleary as "a macho challenge to criminals: they'll just increase the force they use".
Insurers may be unimaginative when it comes to security solutions but they are well aware of the importance of managing the risk of break-ins. Domestic burglaries cost UK insurers £535m in 1999 - a drop from £569m in 1998 and £563m in 1997. There were 414,400 domestic burglaries last year, yet 25% of people do not have any home contents insurance.
An Association of British Insurers spokeswoman says insurers are concerned both with keeping claims costs down and sparing their policyholders the trauma of a break-in. "If you can minimise the risk, it's good for policyholders because they don't have the hassle; good for insurers because it keeps claims costs down, and that in turn keeps premiums low."
Insurers have found that one of the best ways to encourage security consciousness among policyholders is to offer premium discounts if prescribed security measures are taken, often in the form of windows locks and five-lever deadlocks on doors. The common discount is 5% or 10%.
Cutting down the risk
Royal & Sunalliance is the second largest property insurer in the UK market. Its consumer affairs spokeswoman Linda McCormack says the company is keen to advise its policyholders on personal risk management techniques. "It helps us to be competitive, because if they've got a good claims history, we can give them a much better rate."
McCormack lists a number of ways in which homeowners can practice good personal risk management. "People often forget that they're underinsured, which is a risk management issue in itself. It costs about £3,000 to replace someone's clothes and shoes, and that's not even a designer wardrobe."
She also recommends retaining proof of purchase for expensive items and taking photographs of antiques and valuable jewellery.
"People need to read their insurance documents because there is often a minimum standard of security clause," McCormack says. "If you haven't adhered to it, the insurance company is well within its rights to forfeit your payout. All you need to do is make sure your house is secure enough that the burglar will go onto the next, easier to break into, house."
Some insurance companies even go so far as to develop their own security products. Norwich Union (NU) is the top UK property insurer, covering one in five insured houses. Its household product development manager Chris Elliott says he knows of very few burglaries to homes fitted with NU's Oriole alarm system. Too often, though, the system is fitted after an earlier burglary. "The majority of people don't actually think about it until something nasty happens, then they fit alarms, locks and get their property secured."
Elliott praises brokers for hammering home the security message. "Our brokers know that we'll reward security," he says.
British Insurance Brokers' Association (Biba) technical manager Peter Staddon agrees that most brokers are proficient personal risk managers. "They'll go through the proposal and identify areas the homeowner can risk manage," he says. "They'll use their initiative, they'll know which insurers can be moved on certain aspects."
Designed to combat crime - a successful initiative
Some UK residents have had a considerable amount of their personal risk management done for them if they are fortunate enough to live in a Secured by Design (SBD) area.
SBD started 11 years ago as an Association of Chief Police Officers' project and is now administered by Crime Prevention Initiatives(CPI), a private company wholly owned by the police.
CPI managing director Alan McInnes says the project was born out of frustration that the construction industry rarely looked further than the security of an individual dwelling when planning a development.
Under the project, architects can bring their plans for housing estates to police liaison officers, who will discuss ideas to render the layout as crime-proof as possible, for example through clever use of footpaths, lighting, access controls and car parks.
The project is supported by the Association of British Insurers in the UK and has been taken up on a national level in the Netherlands.
McInnes says the SBD is currently used in local authority housing estates and new developments, where a crime reduction of between 55% and 60% has been reported. However, he said its principles could be used for simple changes such as laminated glass in windows and doors of existing dwellings.
He said the project would benefit from even greater support from insurers.
"A couple of brokers have offered discounts to Secured by Design premises," he says. "What we'd like is a much more upfront offer of discounts for SBD housing."
McInnes says security is an element considered in house sales, but is not as important as it should be.
"The private home sector has been watching Changing Rooms and the selling points are kitchens and bathrooms, not security," he said.
Top tips for risk reduction
Claims Management & Adjusting director Philip Swift has investigated hundreds of domestic burglaries as a loss adjuster. The former police officer gives the following common sense tips to avoid becoming a victim:
1 Lock up. "Most burglaries are committed by opportunistic thieves while people are out. About 20% of break-ins do not require any force because they got in through an open door or window."
2 Keep friendly with the neighbours, particularly if they are at home during the day or are a "curtain twitcher" type, or join a Neighbourhood Watch scheme. Information on Neighbourhood Watch is available from www.nwatch.org.uk
3 Hide valuables, particularly small items. If you have many valuable items, fit a safe. "Burglars are not stupid, they will take portable items because they don't wish to be seen walking along the road with a hi-fi," Swift said. "They'll take a video, not a TV, because the size-to-value ratio is better."
4 Look at what surrounds your premises. "If you have hedges or fences, then once a burglar is over, he is screened from the outside world and can operate with greater leisure."
5 Secure your garden shed. "Sheds are a common target. A cheap alarm, under £20, is available and is a great deterrent because few people expect it."
6 Don't be afraid to report suspicious behaviour. "If the police receive complaints about suspicious activity, they have a further reason for stopping and searching someone and their attention is drawn to a particular area."
7 Mark your property and stick a note in your window advertising the fact. "The police seize a grandfather clock from a squalid flat belonging to Billy the Known Burglar, who says he bought it in a pub for £50 cash off a little old man. If the true owner cannot be located then it will probably go back to the thief."
8 Take pictures of all valuable items, such as silverware and jewellery, and write down the serial numbers of your TV, video, stereo, home computer and camera equipment.