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Residential Burglaries and Tangible Asset Investing

Residential Burglaries and Tangible Asset Investing

Photo Credit: informedmag.com

One of the disadvantages of investing in tangible assets is that they must be safely stored.  There are really only a few good ways to securely store portable, high value bullion, art, gemstones or antiques.  The first is in a safety deposit box at a local bank.  The second is by using a burglary-resistant safe installed in your home.  The third method is to keep these tangible assets in your house without a safe, but purchase insurance to cover them in the event of loss.  Insurance can also be used in combination with a bank safety deposit box or a home safe for additional protection against loss.

However, bank safety deposit boxes and insurance have one major drawback.  They both have recurring costs every year in the form of premiums for an insurance policy or rent for a safety deposit box.  If your goal is to maximize the financial return on your tangible assets, this negative annual cashflow is undesirable.

Luckily, that leaves us with a remaining option to secure our tangible investments: buying a burglary safe.  A home safe also confers another important benefit; it allows tangible asset investors to retain personal, physical possession of their investments.  Although it may seem paranoid right now, I firmly believe that the phrase "possession is 9/10th of the law" will take on renewed importance in the face of inevitable future financial crises.

Due to this looming future scenario and the rapidly growing trend toward investing in tangible assets, I want to talk a bit about residential burglaries.  In 2015 (the most recent year records are available) there were an estimated 999,446 reported residential burglaries in the U.S.  There were approximately 125 million U.S. households in the same year, meaning your chances of being burglarized are about 0.8%.  That might not seem like a very high number, until you realize that it is 0.8% every single year!  As you can see, the risk of being the victim of a residential burglary really piles up over time.

The following items are most at risk of being stolen in residential burglaries:

  • Cash
  • Prescription drugs, especially pain-killer prescriptions like Oxycodone or Vicodin.
  • Small electronics like laptops, gaming consoles, tablets, digital cameras or cell phones
  • Portable valuables like bullion, fine jewelry, luxury watches or sterling silverware
  • Guns
  • Credit cards, debit cards, gift cards and checks

A burglar can easily fence these items on the black market or turn them into quick cash at a local pawn shop.  This list certainly isn't comprehensive either; most burglars aren't picky and will take anything that looks valuable and is easy to transport.  But in spite of a wide array of household items to choose from, residential burglars don't usually make off with that much loot.

According to the FBI, the average dollar loss per residential burglary in the United States in 2015 was only $2,316.  I strongly suspect that this is a reflection of the fact that many U.S. households don't have much worth stealing.  But don't let the modest dollar value fool you.  If you store high-value tangible assets at home, you will be at risk for much greater losses if your home is burglarized.

This statistic underscores a fundamental truth about residential burglaries; they are largely the domain of drug addicts, gangbangers and other amateurs.  Under normal circumstances, a burglar will hit the master bedroom (including its closets) and master bathroom (looking for prescription drugs) before quickly running through the rest of the house looking for anything of value that is sitting in plain sight.  A burglar almost always wants to be in and out of your house as quickly as possible, so it shouldn't be surprising that the typical burglary is between 5 and 10 minutes in length.

In most instances, a burglar will use a large screwdriver, crowbar or large hammer/small sledgehammer to gain access to your home via a ground level window or door.  In fact, these simple tools are almost ideal multi-taskers for the average burglar, not only giving him the ability to compromise most locks quickly and easily, but also fend off an angry dog in a pinch.  However, because they have to be in and out so quickly, few residential burglars bother carrying additional tools with them.

Commercial burglaries, on the other hand, are where the semi-professionals and professionals of the criminal world gravitate.  The obvious motivation behind this is the larger payoff.  Banks, pawn shops, jewelry stores, payday loan companies and other retail establishments often have large amounts of cash or valuable merchandise on site.  But these businesses usually employ strict security measures like cameras, alarms, and heavy-duty burglary safes.

So commercial burglars have to step up their game - and they do.  The casing process is usually much more rigorous for commercial burglaries, often lasting for days or even weeks.  In contrast, residential burglaries are often a crime of opportunity; a criminal may case a house for less than an hour before striking.  Once he identifies a convenient target, the residential burglar, equipped with his crowbar or hammer, is ready to go.

This is rarely the case with a professional burglar who cases a commercial establishment.  Once a commercial burglar has deciphered the employee routine, he will then prepare his equipment.  His complement of tools will often include a variety of menacing power tools such as angle grinders, drills and demolition saws.  These tools allow a burglar to cut open steel doors, tough locks and even high-security burglary safes, given sufficient time.  Commercial burglars might even bring a cutting torch with them, although this is less and less common as the welding trades have declined in the U.S.

The takeaway from these statistics is that if you are storing even just a few thousand dollars worth of tangible assets in your home, it makes sense to take security precautions. Layered home security is a great starting point.  But, in my opinion, a good burglary-resistant safe is also a requirement.

Luckily, most residential burglaries are the simple smash-and-grab variety.  Even burglars who are more thorough usually stick to hand tool safe cracking, meaning less expensive, Underwriter Laboratories (UL) residential security container (RSC) certified safes are adequate in most instances.  However, if you need to store valuables worth more than fifty thousand dollars, or just want peace of mind, then stepping up to a high-security floor safe or a UL TL-15 or TL-30 rated safe is the way to go.  These commercial quality safes can withstand a punishing amount of abuse at the hands of burglars using power tools and still remain intact.

Townhouse and Condo Home Security

Townhouse and Condo Home Security

Layered home security is a concept that I already dealt with in another article.  However, I thought I would take a slightly different perspective on physical security this time.  While the prior article approached home security from the viewpoint of the owner of a detached single family house, here I will discuss townhouse, apartment and condo home security.

Layered home security is the philosophy of implementing many small, overlapping security measures to harden your residence against burglary or home invasion.  This tends to be more effective than spending a large amount of money on a single monumental security precaution.  But if you live in a condo or townhouse, the approach you take to layered home security has to be different than those applied to traditional, stand-alone houses.

Under normal circumstances, the first zone in a layered home security plan is the yard.  This represents an issue for multi-family residences because this deterrence zone is either truncated or non-existent.  However, this drawback is sometimes not much of a negative, and can be easily overcome most of the time.

First, multi-family units often have independent security measures such as limited access common areas and security cameras.  These would normally be part of a good layered home security plan anyway.  The fact that the building management or condo association maintains them is a clear win for condo dwellers.

However, you can always augment these preexisting security assets with your own.  An example might be a sign like "protected by ABC security systems" clearly visible in a window or in a small flowerbed (if you live near the ground floor).  The beauty of this strategy is that you don't actually have to pay to have your condo or townhouse monitored by a security company, although that certainly wouldn't hurt.  A security system sign might just be a bluff, but potential criminals don't know that!


The second zone for layered home security is the "shell" of the house itself.  This can vary considerably depending on whether you live in a multi-unit high-rise condo or a semi-detached townhouse.  If you are more than two floors off the ground in a multi-unit building, then you are in luck.  The only opening you realistically have to reinforce is your door.

Yes, you may have heard horror stories of highly trained criminal gangs of ex-Army Ranger paratroopers rappelling into luxury high rise condos to conduct Mission Impossible style jewelry heists.  But this is as rare as unicorns.  It simply doesn't happen with any regularity in the real world.  So high rise condo owners can give a sigh of relief.

If you live in a townhouse, row house or "garden level" condo, on the other hand, your security precautions need to be more extensive.  Shatter-resistant security film is a relatively cheap and easy way to upgrade the defensive characteristics of your existing windows.  Placing bars over your windows is another, even more secure enhancement, although it comes at the price of aesthetics.


The security of your front door, however, is paramount for condo and townhouse owners.  Specially fabricated security doors made of metal bars and Plexiglas inserts can be installed over existing doors to increase burglary-resistance.  Although a more expensive option, an existing poor quality exterior door can be entirely replaced with a metal or solid hardwood specimen.

Once you have a good exterior door, it is necessary to reinforce the door jamb and frame.  In many burglaries, the criminal gains access by simply kicking in the front door.  Even robust deadbolts will simply tear away from either the door frame or door itself under extreme conditions.  Therefore, installing a heavy duty door jamb reinforcement kit and strike plate is highly recommended.


The inside of the home is the third area of a layered security strategy.  A burglar alarm is a great addition to this zone as it will give any intruder a very limited timeframe in which to plunder.  Security cameras might also be appropriate in the entryway, depending on your personal level of paranoia.  Large dogs are often great anti-burglar devices, but they typically do not get along well in the confined spaces of condos and townhouses.

While the inside of the home can be thought of as the final zone in a layered home security layout, it is possible to create another, final bastion, usually in a bedroom.  This is commonly known as a safe room or panic room.  A solid wood door enhanced with a high quality deadbolt lock would be a good starting point for this kind of room.  This is an important distinction as many interior doors are flimsy, hollow core construction.

If you are so inclined, it would even be possible to install a full-fledged vault door in a large walk-in closet for a higher security alternative.  In the end, cost is the only realistic limit to the security level you could achieve.  A well-fortified safe room grants peace of mind by giving family members a place to retreat to in case of a violent home invasion.

If you are interested in protecting valuables, buying a burglary or burglary-fire safe is also a wise idea.  A high quality jewelry or security safe not only provides a significant level of burglary resistance, but is also convenient to use.  A safe is a great companion security feature to install in a safe room too.

One little known benefit of living in a multi-unit condo or apartment complex is that security minded residents can typically forego fire protection when shopping for a safe.  This can result in a significant cost savings.  It should be noted, however, that a burglary safe must always be properly bolted to the floor in order to be effective.

With a little creativity, it is possible to successfully apply the concepts of layered home security to multi-family housing situations.  This can turn your condo, townhouse or apartment into a hardened, burglar-resistant home.  A few simple security fixes today can help you avert the personal disaster of a burglary later.

Understanding Power Tool Safe Cracking

Understanding Power Tool Safe Cracking

Continued from part I of this article: Understanding Hand Tool Safe Cracking

Now we'll examine power tool safe cracking techniques.  These types of attacks are relatively uncommon in residential situations.  This is because even cordless power tools are too heavy and cumbersome to carry for long periods of time.  In addition, power tools are the classic uni-tasker - they do one thing well when the typical burglar needs his tools to do many things well.  A very small percentage of residential safe attacks employ power tools, and, in a large proportion of those instances, the burglar opportunistically uses the victim's own tools.

One of the most common methods of power tool safe cracking employs the cordless drill.  Almost all drill attacks are conducted against the door of a safe in the hopes of compromising the lock mechanism.  Occasionally, the door frame is drilled in preparation for a subsequent punch attack against the exposed boltwork.  Fortunately, all good UL RSC rated safes will have robust countermeasures against these kinds of attacks.  These include anti-drill hardplates, one or more relocking devices that are tripped by drill attempts and more robust construction of the safe door and frame compared to the safe body.

Of course, given enough time and drill bits even a high security safe can be opened via drilling.  In fact, drilling is the method most professional safe technicians employ when all non-destructive means of opening a client's locked safe have been exhausted.  Good safe technicians also usually know the closely guarded "weak points" of individual safe designs, allowing them to drill open a safe much faster than most criminals could.

Even so, it may take a professional safe technician up to an hour, depending on his knowledge and skill level, to successfully open a high quality RSC safe using a specialized drilling rig.  In addition, UL safe crackers also rely heavily on drill attacks when conducting their brutal RSC testing.

Another device sometimes used in power tool safe cracking is the reciprocating saw, or Sawzall.  These machines can be wickedly efficient at quickly cutting through metals, particularly thin gauge steel.  Once again, cheap import safes with 12, 14 or 16 gauge bodies are especially vulnerable to this kind of attack.  But higher quality UL RSC burglary safes, many of which employ composite walls between 2 and 4 inches thick, will only yield to these tools very slowly.  A criminal would need a lot of blades, a lot of time and a great deal of patience to successfully use a reciprocating saw on a well made RSC safe.

I wanted to take a moment to talk briefly about two different attacks that are rarely used on safes anymore - torch attacks and manipulation attacks.  Torch attacks employ an oxygen fed cutting torch to burn through the steel body of a safe.  But significant amounts of equipment and training are necessary to successfully breach a safe using this tool.

With the decline of the manufacturing trades in the U.S., the knowledge needed to use a cutting torch is no longer as widespread as it used to be.  Therefore, torch attacks are usually only seen in professional safe cracking operations conducted against commercial targets.  In rare instances, an opportunistic burglar may attempt to cut open a safe using the homeowner's own unsecured cutting torch equipment.

Manipulation attacks are what we traditionally think of as safe cracking.  Old movies are full of these references.  A sophisticated thief wearing all black slips into a bank at night and immediately goes to work on the vault's dial, trying to "feel" the right combination.

Luckily, manipulation attacks are largely works of fiction in the modern age.  The unique skills needed to pull them off take decades to master.  And today's combination locks are much more manipulation-resistant than those of the past.  The newest type of safe lock, the digital lock, can't even be opened via traditional manipulation techniques.

Now we come to the most dangerous type of power tool safe cracking - attacks involving angle grinders, cutoff wheels and circular saws.  These are heavy duty cutting implements that will slice through 1/4", 1/2" and even 1" steel plate with moderate effort.  In fact, this is one of the reasons that modern, high security, TL-15 and higher rated safes are all made from composites - usually a mix of high strength concrete interspersed with carbide and metal nodules sandwiched between two steel sheets.  It is easy enough for these power tools to chew through steel by itself, but they perform poorly against the combination of different materials present in the typical anti-burglar composite fill.

Power tool safe cracking using angle grinders, cutoff wheels or circular saws is exceedingly rare in residential situations.  They are usually seen in burglary attempts on commercial firms such as banks, pawn shops, jewelry stores or other high risk targets.  Even if a burglar does use one of these dread power tools against a high quality RSC safe, it will still take anywhere from a couple minutes to ten minutes of very loud, very hard work to cut open.  And costly carbide or diamond tipped blades may be ruined in the process.  Few burglars are willing to engage in the extensive planning and expense needed to execute these sorts of sophisticated attacks against residential targets.

In the end, I think you need to weigh your personal needs and desired level of security against your budget.  As of 2017, a high quality RSC burglary safe might cost anywhere from $800 to $2,500, depending on its size.  Comparably sized TL-15 safes run from about $2,000 to $6,000.  Prices increase again for TL-30 and higher rated safes.  Gun safes, being substantially larger than most other safes, will also have higher prices.

In any case, a residential burglary safe must first and foremost be stout against basic hand tools like pry bars and sledgehammers.  And it must always be bolted down securely to the floor.  Once you clear these requirements, which any good quality UL RSC rated safe will easily do - you are protected against the vast majority of residential safe attacks.


 

If you lock up your power tools so that a thief can't use them against you, another major risk factor is eliminated.  Even if subjected to power tool safe cracking, a well designed, robustly constructed RSC burglary safe will be able to resist most drilling and reciprocating saw attacks for a surprising length of time.

I don't believe most homeowners need a commercial grade, TL-rated safe for their valuables.  Now, if you are planning on storing very expensive items with a value of more than $50,000, then I think you need either a high security floor safe or a TL-15 or TL-30 rated burglary safe.  You should also consider something more secure than an RSC safe if you are operating in a business or commercial environment or live in a very high risk neighborhood.  But most of us, thankfully, will do just fine with a robustly engineered, well built UL RSC rated safe.

Understanding Hand Tool Safe Cracking

Understanding Hand Tool Safe Cracking

A common question that confronts security minded individuals is what level of protection they should look for in a burglary safe.  In general there are two major choices - the less expensive, less secure Underwriter Laboratories (UL) residential security container (RSC) designation and the substantially more expensive, more secure UL TL-15 label.

The UL RSC tag certifies that a safe has resisted forcible entry through the door for at least 5 minutes by an experienced UL safecracker using common hand tools.  The UL RSC certification is a very broad designation, meaning there are excellent, highly secure RSC safes and mediocre RSC safes, but there are no bad, shoddy RSC safes.  The RSC label is usually found on burglary safe products intended for residential or home use.

Although the RSC test only lasts five minutes, this time only includes "tools on the safe".  The testing clock stops immediately once the UL technician pauses his attack for any reason.  The safecracker conducting the test can also freely consult with his very experienced UL colleagues on the best way to attack the safe.  In addition, the safe manufacturer must provide detailed schematics of the safe's design well in advance of the test, so any design flaws are easily spotted and exploited.  Very few firms' safe designs pass the grueling UL RSC test on the first attempt.

In contrast, the Underwriter Laboratories TL-15 rating signifies that a safe has withstood door entry for at least 15 minutes by a team of two highly trained UL employees using brutally efficient power tools.  As demanding as the UL RSC testing procedure is, the TL-15 test is far more punishing.  Although TL-15 safes are primarily intended for commercial applications, they are often purchased by individuals looking for the highest security possible.  There are even higher TL-rated safes available, including the TL-30, TL-15x6 and the TL-30x6.

So here is our dilemma.  Does it make sense to stick with a high quality RSC burglary safe, or should you open your wallet and spend more money on a higher security TL-15 burglary safe?  In order to properly answer this question, we will first have to examine the different hand tool safe cracking methods that criminals commonly use to break into burglary safes.

The first hand tool safe cracking strategy a burglar typically employs is trying to remove the entire, intact safe from the residence.  Then he can take his time opening it back at his lair.  Surprisingly, weight is not a significant deterrent to this endeavor.  Even high security safes well in excess of 1,000 pounds have been stolen in this manner.  Thieves have no compunctions about damaging or destroying your home and have been known to push safes down stairs or throw them out windows.

The only way to prevent a burglar carrying off your safe is to make sure it is properly installed.  This means the unit must be bolted down to either a solid concrete floor or to the floor joists under a carpeted or hardwood floor.  Anything less is putting your valuables into a conveniently-sized metal box for a criminal to carry off.

If a burglar fails to remove a properly secured safe, the dreaded pry attack is usually next on the hand tool safe cracking list.  This involves shoving a screwdriver, crowbar, wedge or pry bar between the door and the frame of a safe and then applying leverage to try to force the door open.  Pry attacks succeed when the frame and door flex enough to pop the locking bolts free.  Alternatively, a pry attack can also collapse the boltwork support in a safe's door, causing it to open.

Some safe manufacturers, particularly gun safe makers, try to counter pry attacks by adding 3-way or even 4-way active boltwork.  This means that bolts extend from every side of the safe door to engage the frame, making prying more difficult in theory.  However, excessive numbers of bolts are just a way to compensate for a poor safe design.  A well engineered safe does not need more than 2 to 4 bolts to successfully resist even the most aggressive pry attacks.

Sledgehammers are often used in conjunction with wedges or crowbars to make pry attacks more effective.  It also isn't uncommon for burglars with a sledgehammer to simply beat on a safe hoping it will fail.  Although this might seem like a very crude way to open a safe, it can be surprisingly effective, especially on cheap, low-end safes.  Low-quality safes often have spot welds instead of more expensive, more secure continuous welds.  As a result, a cheap safe can literally come apart at the seams during a sledgehammer attack.

Another hand tool safe cracking method that deserves mention is the peel attack.  This can be used in combination with either hand tools or power tools.  In both instances, an initial tool is used to break a weld seam or cut a slit in the side of the safe.  Then the steel, if thin enough, is "peeled" back, revealing the interior of the safe.

Peel attacks can be very effective against cheap safes using thin steel, but become much less effective once a safe has steel walls that are about 1/8" thick (11 gauge) or thicker.  Low quality, imported gun safes are particularly vulnerable to peel attacks, while high-security composite safes are generally immune to this type of attack.

One reason pry and sledgehammer attacks are so common is that these tools are multi-taskers.  A burglar can easily use them to illicitly gain entry through locked doors and windows or even use them as weapons against an enraged dog or homeowner in a pinch.  So when a burglar is finally inside a residence and finds a juicy-looking burglary safe, these are the tools he has at his side.  Even if a burglar doubts he'll be able to open a safe he finds, most will still be compelled to give it a try in many instances.

Hand tool safe cracking can be shockingly effective against cheaply made safes.  The $500 gun safes that are found in the aisles of big box stores all over the country are especially vulnerable.  To meet the low price points, these safes are almost all imported from China.  Often the same Chinese factory churns out nearly identical safes and simply slaps different company logos on them for export purposes.  In addition, these cheap safes skimp on protection, often only having a 12 gauge steel (0.1046 inches thick) skin or thinner.  Buyer beware - these cheap safes are often easily compromised by burglars.

Read part II of this article: Understanding Power Tool Safe Cracking