Study Shows Burglars Avoid Alarm Systems

A new AIREF-funded study scientifically supports the industry’s assertion that alarm systems deter burglars. More than four in five incarcerated respondents say they would try to determine if an alarm was present before attempting a burglary. And the presence of an alarm system would cause more than half the intruders to abort.

Alarms and Cameras Deter Thefts

A significant section of the survey contained items related to what factors served as deterrents or would cause an individual to seek a different target. 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 security precautions (alarm signs, alarms, dogs inside, and outdoor cameras or other surveillance equipment) were considered by most burglars when contemplating a potential target.

Alarms and outdoor cameras and other surveillance equipment were considered by a majority of burglars, and 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.

Further, 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 (see Table 2 left). Interestingly, 80% of respondents indicated they never attempted to disable an alarm.

Characteristics of the Crimes

One of the broad research questions in this project included elements related to how burglars commit their crimes, so a series of questions were designed to gather information about how they operate. Results indicate that just more than a fourth of burglars typically work 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.

When asked about gaining entry, most of these individuals reported entering through 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. Most respondents did not use sophisticated techniques when entering their targets, and only about one in five of them reported cutting telephone or alarm wires before entering. Moreover, the majority of these burglars did not carry complex tools; screwdrivers were the most commonly reported tool that burglars carried, followed by crow bars and hammers.

Once inside their targets, most burglars (79%) reported an interest in acquiring cash, followed by jewelry (68%), illegal drugs (58%), electronics (56%) and prescription drugs (44%). Interestingly, only one respondent expressed an interest in taking weapons. 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.

Ultimately, most of the respondents said they would sell the items to strangers, pawn shops or second-hand dealers, or friends or trade 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.

Gender Differences Identified

There were some broad similarities between male and female burglars in this study and some substantial differences as well. In terms of past criminal involvement, males and females were fairly equivalent. Male burglars, however, often planned their burglaries more deliberately and carefully and were more likely to visit a potential target ahead of time to gather intelligence. Significantly fewer female burglars were likely to spend time planning, more females were likely to report engaging in burglaries on the “spur of the moment,” and more females were likely to complete a burglary that day if they did spend any time planning. 

 Female burglars appeared to be more impulsive overall, perhaps as a result of being more involved in, and possibly motivated by, substance use problems. This idea is supported by that finding that drug use was the most frequently reported reason given by females (70%) for their engagement in burglary. The top reason cited by males was money.

There were also some differences in males and females in regard to deterrent factors. Specifically, male burglars reported being deterred from targeting a particular location by a lack of potential hiding locations, steel bars on windows or doors, proximity of the target to other houses or businesses, availability of escape routes, and distance to the nearest road (which is consistent with their interest in nighttime offending). A larger proportion of females than males indicated that alarms, outdoor cameras, outdoor lighting, and indications of neighborhood watch programs were effective deterrents.

Although the impact of alarms and surveillance equipment on target selection did not vary significantly across gender, male burglars were less often dissuaded from attempting a burglary if they noticed signs suggesting that a particular location was protected by alarms. Further, male burglars who tended to plan more carefully were also more willing to attempt to disable an alarm that was found at a target location.

Other gender differences concerned time of offense, criminal partners, and items taken during burglaries. For example, females clearly preferred to burglarize homes and residences in the afternoon timeframe, while males preferred to focus on businesses in the late evenings. Also, significantly more females reported engaging in burglaries with spouses/significant while significantly males reported doing so with friends. Finally, were more likely to steal illegal drugs, cash and jewelry during burglaries while females were more likely to seek out prescription medications.

Positive Outcome for Security Industry 

Overall, the results of this study of incarcerated burglars in North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio are consistent with various samples of burglars in other states and countries as found in prior research. Still, it is not known if these findings can be generalized to the total population of burglars in these and other states. The patterns established from this sample might vary compared to incarcerated burglars in other states or burglars who have not been caught and/or incarcerated for their crimes. If possible, future research should investigate possible differences among burglars who have and have not apprehended.  

That acknowledged, the results of this project (see Figure 1 above) are vital to further supporting the value and merit of security systems and providers. Imagine the powerful impact these statistics could have on anyone from end users to law enforcement to insurers — even those working in the security industry itself as tangible proof of their meaningful contributions to public safety. And it may be just the ticket to tip the scale in favor of the industry in instances when the false alarm issue heats up. 

Joseph B. Kuhns, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at UNC Charlotte’s Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology. He can be reached at Kristie R. Blevins, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at Eastern Kentucky University’
s School of Justice Studies. She can be reached at

Security Is Our Business, Too

For professionals who recommend, buy and install all types of electronic security equipment, a free subscription to Security Sales & Integration is like having a consultant on call. You’ll find an ideal balance of technology and business coverage, with installation tips and techniques for products and updates on how to add sales to your bottom line.

A free subscription to the #1 resource for the residential and commercial security industry will prove to be invaluable. Subscribe today!

Subscribe Today!

Get Our Newsletters