Because of the COVID-19 virus pandemic, millions of Americans have been asked to stay in their houses until further notice. Our new national focus on hygiene and hibernation means that we’re mostly home, save for only necessary trips to the grocery store, the pharmacy, or for medical appointments. While it’s hard to define being quarantined as a good thing, from a security perspective, it means the chances of experiencing a home burglary are now quite low. Since most home burglaries happen during daylight hours, even the dumbest crook knows it’s not a good idea to try and break into a fully occupied house.
Crooks used to doing home burglaries to get their drug money (their first reason, followed by a gambling addiction as the second), will soon realize the liquor store, hardware store and pizza shop are closed. With a truck and a brick, they are back in business.
Prison interviews with burglars reveal most of them are not master thieves. They steal what they can carry out; they are deterred by big angry dogs; they wear gloves, hoodies and masks to avoid being caught on a camera; and if they trigger a ringing alarm, their most common answer is, “I’ll work faster,” knowing that it’s unlikely the local cops are arriving from right down the street.
Store owners who run non-essential businesses (and the list of those seems to change daily) are now home, so their unguarded and unprotected locations are at risk for daylight burglaries and a crime that we haven’t seen in many years: looting. Drive by a small strip mall in any city today, and you’ll notice that all of the businesses are closed at 11:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. The crooks see what we see too, and they know there are not enough cops to protect every building.
Looting is most often a mob activity, where one or two people find a store, break the window and starting running out with whatever they can carry. This draws a crowd, who feel compelled to do the same and the situation can move along a block of shops (unoccupied or not). The looters feel entitled to do what they do, based on the current social circumstances. If they manage to get caught, they’ll tell the police they didn’t start the initial break-in, and besides, everyone else was doing it. Looting is a social contagion, that can spread block to block and across the country in waves. Social and mass media coverage can help start these waves. Lots of video of store looting helps some people rationalize that “it’s stealing but it’s not really stealing,” that it’s a good solution for them to help themselves in these difficult times, and they deserve to get what they can get.
As security professionals, we can help advise store owners how to best secure their buildings and inventory. It’s more than just telling them to upgrade their cameras and alarm systems. Burglarizing a closed clothing store only requires a van, an accomplice and a hammer. Unless that store has bars on the display windows, it’s vulnerable to a daylight or nighttime burglary, even with cameras and/or an alarm system.
At times like this, with the coronavirus running our lives, we need to think outside the box. Consider these unique solutions to help us better protect the properties of small-business store owners:
- Suggest that store owners move as much of their most expensive or theft-sensitive inventory to an offsite storage facility (or their homes) until the quarantine period is over.
- Have businesses in strip malls pool their money to hire a security guard firm to watch all of their businesses 24/7.
- Besides making certain they have fully-functional intrusion alarms, with both ringing alarm coverage and an alarm monitoring service, discuss the value of adding shatterproof windows to their stores (perhaps splitting the cost with the landlord or property manager) and/or installing window bars or grilles.
- Do an assessment of the current security cameras. Too many small businesses have outdated systems that don’t save the imagery to a network; where some cameras work and some don’t; fake cameras (to save money); bad interior or exterior lighting; or poorly-positioned cameras that make it difficult to identify the thieves.
- Paying furloughed employees to work in teams of two or more, three eight-hour shifts per day inside the store (including graveyard hours), and be visible to anyone who looks in. They can clean, restock, conduct inventory, or do nothing but just sit and monitor what’s going on outside and be ready to call the police if a caser comes by or a crowd of looters gathers. We won’t ask these employees to intervene physically to protect the building or the goods, but they need to be ready to lock down the store or call the police before a potential looting situation escalates.
We’re living in unique times, where people under economic stress do bad things. We need to do what we can to help business owners protect what they have.