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How did someone break into my home?
December 6, 2011 11:30 AM   Subscribe

How did someone break into my house?

I'm trying to understand the most likely explanation for how someone broke into my house, so that I can try to address the right vulnerabilities. Here's the situation:

House has front door and back door, both with deadbolts. Back door is a glass door with a Hoppe-made two-point lock. Detached city house in Chicago.

Wood gate to alley has cheap deadbolt shielded by metal plates on the gate. You can't see into our house through the glass back door unless you get through this alley gate. The deadbolt on the gate has a keyhole on both sides - meaning, you can't jump the fence and open it from the inside without a key.

I left the house at about 10:30 am Sunday morning. Returned 1:30 pm. The only creature in house was dog - a 65 pound retriever. A cupcake of a dog, but big and strong looking. She barks at people who come to the door.

I am 99% sure I locked the front and back doors. I specifically recall double-checking both of them. There is some small chance I only "halfway" turned the back-door lock, which is sometimes tricky, and which would result in the door not really being locked. There is some small chance I left the gate unlocked three weeks ago when I opened it for leaf raking. We don't use this gate normally - nobody has been through it for weeks.

There is a regular ADT-type security system, but it was off.

While I was out, someone came into my house and stole two laptops that were sitting in plain sight of the back door. The only other thing taken was a small bag - probably for carrying the computers. The house was not disturbed - no drawers open or anything like that. Lots of small steal-able things were elsewhere in the house, but it seems that nobody looked for them. The thief could not have been in the house for more than 5 minutes.

There are no real signs of a forced entry. There is a funny mark on the door jamb in one spot on the back door (a long shallow gouge at the height of the upper bolt on the Hoppe lock), but that might have been there before.

The thief fed the dog a tupperware of leftovers that was in the fridge. This is possibly the strangest part. If you are comfortable walking past the dog when you first come in, why hassle with the food from the fridge?

A few people have had my keys recently - like a painter, baby sitter, and similar. Only one person had the key to back gate, a carpenter who I just can't imagine would do this. (I actually owe him money and have more jobs for him to do.)

The back door was unlocked when I got home. So was the gate to the alley. These seem like the most obvious entry/exit points.

As far as I can tell, there are three possibilities:

(A) Someone who had a copy of my keys did this. But why were they in such a rush? If you had someone's keys and planned something like this, wouldn't you take more stuff? Why would you need to steal a bag to carry to loot? Of course, maybe you make it look rushed to cover up the fact that you know me. Maybe that's why the dog was not an issue also.

(B) I'm an idiot and left the gate and back door unlocked. Someone just happened to be walking around looking for a place to rob on Sunday morning. And that person is not afraid of sneaking into a place with a large (but friendly) dog. This seems tremendously unlikely to me. This, I should say, is what the police thank happened.

(C) Someone "bumped" the locks. Basically same as (B), but more thought out and helps explain how they got in even though I double-checked the doors. This is the locksmith's opinion, but not based on any physical evidence. It also helps him sell me new locks.

My questions are - (a) what happened; and (b) what should I do to prevent it from happening again?

I am having the locks changed and am going to be much stricter about who gets a key, for one.
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (40 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
What kind of locks are they? Most door locks are just normal pins that you can pick really easily if you know how to do so.
posted by astapasta24 at 11:38 AM on December 6, 2011


You already have expert opinions from the police and the locksmith. I'd go with one of them.

Sorry for the violation of your home.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:38 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is some small chance I only "halfway" turned the back-door lock, which is sometimes tricky, and which would result in the door not really being locked. There is some small chance I left the gate unlocked three weeks ago when I opened it for leaf raking. We don't use this gate normally - nobody has been through it for weeks.

I'm going to speculate that the simplest explation is the most likely explanation.
posted by Balonious Assault at 11:39 AM on December 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


Most thieves would not be scared of a city/suburban dog. Most dogs will not attack a stranger, they're not trained for it. They may bark, but they'll do little else. The food was likely to quiet your dog down, in my opinion.
posted by smitt at 11:43 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Simplest explanation to me is a neighbor who is somewhat familiar with you and your comings and goings, saw you leave, and took a chance.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:44 AM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


They fed the dog to keep her quiet. They might have met her before so knew she was a softy, or they were just a dog person, who knows retrievers are big, but also easily side tracked by food from a human that's confident around them.
posted by Helga-woo at 11:45 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


This really sounds like an "inside job." (i.e., someone who knows you and your house):
posted by justkevin at 11:46 AM on December 6, 2011 [22 favorites]


I agree that you probably left the doors unlocked. They probably left quickly because they heard a noise (or thought they did). Perhaps your dog was barking, the food was an attempt to shut it up, but it didn't work so the thief left.
posted by desjardins at 11:46 AM on December 6, 2011


The last time I locked myself out of my house, I called a locksmith who had the back door unlocked in less than 30 seconds. Someone who has the right tools and knows what they're doing can very easily get inside a locked door.
posted by something something at 11:46 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Considering the dog, it was someone who new he is a 'cupcake'. It was someone who had access to keys or someone close to them. And of course they were in and out quickly. They did not know your schedule and you would know something was up if you saw them in or near your house on a Sunday when you weren't expecting them.

I'm sorry to say, sometimes people have things going on that you may not be aware of. And they can always tell themselves that you can easily be reimbursed by insurance.
posted by readery at 11:47 AM on December 6, 2011


Someone who had a copy of my keys did this. But why were they in such a rush? If you had someone's keys and planned something like this, wouldn't you take more stuff? Why would you need to steal a bag to carry to loot?

My guess is, they didn't really intend to do it--it was an impulse thing, like maybe they were just going to talk to you or look around or went in on a dare, but the computers were there and they took them in a rush.

They knew your dog was reasonably friendly.

It sort of has the poorly thought-out markings of 'teenager'.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:49 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


You can actually sometimes tell whether a lock has been picked--basically take the lock apart and look for certain patterns of scratches. Google lockpicking forensics for more info. [I'd probably approach it as an interesting amateur detective sort of project--it's probably not a time-efficient way of figuring out how to best secure your home]
posted by phoenixy at 11:49 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also consider that the babysitter etc might have a thieving boyfriend/brother/etc.
posted by desjardins at 11:50 AM on December 6, 2011 [10 favorites]


If you had someone's keys and planned something like this, wouldn't you take more stuff?

If they were trying to steal information stored on the computers for some reason (your job, perhaps?), then might not care about anything else.
posted by The World Famous at 11:50 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


> This is the locksmith's opinion, but not based on any physical evidence.

Not saying what happened, but just wanted to note that lack of physical evidence is kind of what you get with bumping, it leaves little or no evidence (depending on how heavy-handed the bumper is). Also note that almost no locks are bump-proof, merely "resistant".

And since picking is mentioned above: same goes for that, a heavy-handed picker might leave scratches on the pins inside your lock, but a somewhat skilled picker would leave little evidence.

I'm not sure who said it, but a quote I quite like: "Locks are there to keep honest people honest." They don't particularly keep people out who really want to get in.


Having said all that, I feel bad for you. Having someone steal something from your home, which is supposed to be a safe place sucks loads. Good luck with everything.
posted by bjrn at 11:53 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you have teenage kids with friends or is your babysitter a teenager who may have had a friend over some night? Carpenter have an apprentice? This does sound like amateur hour, probably someone young who lives nearby and knew you had the laptops. Laptops are easy to transport and sell.
posted by fshgrl at 11:54 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


The problem with the lock-picking / bumping scenario is that it just doesn't make sense. Those require practice and special tools that may be illegal or will at least cause suspicion if you're discovered carrying them. So the thief would have had to brought them to your house, at noon, on Sunday, and picked the gate and backdoor lock while a dog is barking in broad daylight, hoping there's something right near the backdoor because he only has 90 seconds and 60 of those will be spent picking the lock. Also that you've left something to carry the valuables in.

And the monkeys must grab the bags of money and not just shriek and go running all over the place, like they did in the practice run.
posted by justkevin at 11:56 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


I left the house at about 10:30 am Sunday morning. Returned 1:30 pm.

Also, of the people who had the key -- did any of them know you were going to do this? If they were in such a big hurry, they might not have realized you'd be gone three hours. Maybe they thought you were only going to the gym or church or whatever, and might be home any minute, but instead you did X. Do you routinely do whatever it is, or a subset of it, on Sundays?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:01 PM on December 6, 2011


Like the above users, I think it's most likely that you were a known entity to the thief. The most likely culprit is not your painter or babysitter themselves but probably someone close to them who had the ability to make a copy of your keys while they were hanging around THEIR house... especially if they had a label on them saying whose house keys they were.

You've reported the theft to police, but I'd also keep an eye on craigslist in case you see your laptops, and let police know if you do. It's relatively common in Chicago for teens to sell stolen laptops on craigslist.

Finally, yes, change your locks. Someone out there has a copy of your keys. And in the future, when you give your keys to someone, request that they not put a label on them indicating your address.
posted by juniperesque at 12:02 PM on December 6, 2011


If the carpenter has other workers that were also used to using your keys to get in and out, I'd suspect the carpenter. Leaving the back gate and back door unlocked, having someone notice that, see the laptops, take the laptops, know you have a dog and feed that dog are just too many things that would have to line up all too well for my mystery-book-reading self to put into one scenario.
posted by xingcat at 12:07 PM on December 6, 2011


When you left the house on Sunday, was it for a regular date or appointment, like church or a standing brunch date with your parents? Or was it a random, one off event?

If it was something where you can be relied upon to be gone at that time, it gives more credence to the "inside job" scenario laid out above.

I'm so sorry about this.

[On Preview, what A Terrible Llama said.
posted by China Grover at 12:08 PM on December 6, 2011


I'd suspect those people who worked with the carpenter, I meant.
posted by xingcat at 12:08 PM on December 6, 2011


Yes. Almost certainly an inside job; my money is on the carpenter, the painter, maybe the babysitter. In my city you have to be really careful about yard-workers, roofers, tree cutters, and home improvement people, because they or their employees are often semi-transient, on drugs, alcoholic, barely scraping by, and will burglarize your house using the knowledge they gained while working there.
posted by jayder at 12:14 PM on December 6, 2011


You're kinda looking at this the wrong way IMO; all you're getting is opinion based on the data you gave us. You're talking to the echo chamber.

I suggest that instead of worrying about a single vulnerability you use this opportunity to update your security overall. On the laptop side full disc encryption and maybe some kind of "phone home" program (I'm not up on those). On the physical side secure all weak points (the sticky back door lock, no duplicate keys, the glass back door, new locks, keep expensive hardware out of plain view, turn the alarm on when you leave the house, etc).

Chain, weakest link etc.
posted by Leon at 12:24 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


If you had someone's keys and planned something like this, wouldn't you take more stuff?

No, not necessarily. It's quite likely that even someone planning it would prefer just to grab and go, as it were -- why spend 15, 20, 30 minutes and increase the risk of getting caught just to go looking for unknown items when you can spend less than 5 minutes getting two laptops in plain sight?
posted by scody at 1:00 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


I once had a painting stolen by a painter who was painting my place. At first I thought, why didn't he take more stuff? But, it's about ease, what appears expensive/re-sellable/giftable (it wouldn't surprise me if he gave it to his girlfriend) and not spending so much time taking stuff that you get caught. He quit the job halfway through (but left with the upfront payment because he'd painted half of the house) and it wasn't until weeks later that I'd discovered the painting was even missing. To do that he would've had to have gone through my closet which I don't particularly want to think about very much.

I imagine that yours is an inside job because such minimal but expensive things were taken. I don't know if it's because of the information/identity theft thing, but if you've got a couple of minutes and there are two laptops sitting there on a table...

How should you prevent it from happening again - if you're going out, even for a short time, turn your security system on, don't leave your valuables out for other people to see. If you don't want to put everything away, make use of your blinds/curtains. I also know people are busy but I'm uber paranoid about giving anyone I'm not related to/in a relationship with my housekeys. In this situation your locks should absolutely be changed ASAP.
posted by mleigh at 1:06 PM on December 6, 2011


People wandering around on a Sunday morning looking for places to burgle and only bothering to take the easy things is actually pretty normal. I'm not sure why you think it's the most unlikely, it strikes me as the most likely. Something similar happened to us, but they pried a window open (we were home but sleeping in late), reached in and picked up my wallet, stole less than a dollar in coins and left the wallet outside, credit cards and everything else still intact. They hit the whole neighbourhood taking tools from sheds and other small accessible things, but at the same time they had put in enough thought to wear gloves. Police thought it was probably older kids.

So I think it's either B or C, they got in through an unlocked door or they managed to unlock it themselves. Maybe they fed your dog to be a smartarse, very likely they were just too lazy to go beyond the easy pay-off of stealing laptops that were right there. Either way I think new locks are in order to be sure. And I'm sorry these dickheads targeted you guys.
posted by shelleycat at 1:22 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh I meant to say up there, wear gloves and break open several locked doors or closed windows. The kids or whoever that hit my neighbourhood didn't have anyone's keys and weren't around for long, but they had no problem getting into places and stealing easy to take stuff. So I still don't think that having your keys was necessary for this job (although it's also possible someone copied the keys from one of the trusted people you gave them too).
posted by shelleycat at 1:27 PM on December 6, 2011


If there are any families in your neighborhoods with teenage children, I'd talk to the parents and let them know what's missing. Not in an accusatory way, but in a "you may want to take extra security measures to protect your own stuff" kind of way. This has the extra benefit of them knowing exactly who to call if they notice an unexplained laptop drifting through their house...
posted by hermitosis at 1:30 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hey anonymous - It really sucks that someone came into your house and took your stuff. Do not hesitate to be uncomfortable for a while and reassess all sorts of things about your house and your habits.

I lived in Chicago for 10 years and we had two buglaries. Very similar to yours - The first one two dudes most likely from the house next door watched us leave on a Sunday and climbed through a very small but open high window over the door, they took what was in site, put it in two bags of ours, and each left through a different door (they stole electronics). These guys would watch for things like a door that did not lock right and try it a couple times and then watch the house til the people who were there left for good. How do we know this - we filed a police report and during the process the police told us that the whole neighborhood had been ransacked and these were the patterns they figured out so far. The second one, a guy on a meth climbed up a 20 foot drop into a cracked window in broad daylight on Ashland (is there a busier street?) and stole cheap jewelery, snacks and very expensive bike bags to put the crappy haul in. We filed a police report and a month later this guy was caught high as a kite and told the police were to find some of our cheap jewelery. So to me your situation in Chicago fits with the other outside jobs of just checking a door or a window that I have heard about from police and friends, and experienced myself.

And honestly, if someone is in your house they can take whatever they want. You can hide your valuables (we now keep our emergency money in an ugly bottle our medicine cabinet because everywhere else got ransacked) or put them in a safe or keep a certain amount of clutter (thieves do not bother to look through papers or dirty laundry) but if there is nothing of value readily available they will keep looking until they find something or come back.

I love Leon's idea of using the laptops to find the thieves (or to at least find the laptops).

Again, I am sorry for your loss of stuff and your loss of security.
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 1:43 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


A bump key is not a piece of James Bond super tech available only from Q division so that's quite possible. Also, in high school I knew a local delinquent who would, apparently, enter through a window and exit through the back door (until he got caught at it). So it's possible the alley gate was unlocked and the back door was not the point of attack at all.

Another thought: do you have a key to the alley gate somewhere semi-obvious? Is it still there?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:52 PM on December 6, 2011


Maybe they only took what was easy and in view, because part of the reason for this attempt was to test your security and see what kind of stuff you have, so they can come back later with a U-Haul or big burly helpers? Kind of like this guy's question.

Also, did you check for missing items like bank and credit card statements? Could they have grabbed a pile of mail off the table?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:59 PM on December 6, 2011


Most thieves would not be scared of a city/suburban dog. Most dogs will not attack a stranger, they're not trained for it. They may bark, but they'll do little else. The food was likely to quiet your dog down, in my opinion.

Really? My mom works in jails and prisons and mentioned to me once that the guys there have told her that they usually don't bother with a house if there's a dog, most likely on the "better safe than sorry, plenty of other houses around" principle. Most of them are from rural areas rather than cities and suburbs, but I can't imagine it would make a huge difference.
posted by geegollygosh at 3:03 PM on December 6, 2011


justkevin wrote: The problem with the lock-picking / bumping scenario is that it just doesn't make sense. Those require practice and special tools that may be illegal or will at least cause suspicion if you're discovered carrying them. So the thief would have had to brought them to your house, at noon, on Sunday, and picked the gate and backdoor lock while a dog is barking in broad daylight, hoping there's something right near the backdoor because he only has 90 seconds and 60 of those will be spent picking the lock. Also that you've left something to carry the valuables in.

No. It requires a not-terribly-odd-looking key and a shoe, and you can get away without the shoe. Any idiot can make one in 30 minutes or so with a key blank and a file set. This is why diversity in locks is a good thing. It's a lot more suspicious for someone to go wandering around with 5 or 10 oddly cut keys than it is one or two.
posted by wierdo at 3:53 PM on December 6, 2011


If I were breaking and entering, I'd probably feed the dog, too. People like dogs.
posted by pjaust at 4:26 PM on December 6, 2011


In my inner-city experience & current daily exposure to police activity via scanners, the explanation favoured by the officers and locksmith isn't all that unlikely, even with the dog. Consider yourselves lucky that the pup was easily quieted, as many burglars choose less kind methods when a ruckus is made.

There really is a class of thieves who walk about in broad daylight and see what doors they can get into with the plan of just taking whatever they can grab in a few seconds. Sometimes homeowners are even home when this happens. Not nearly as uncommon as one would think (hope).
posted by batmonkey at 4:28 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


The people who say that it doesn't make sense that a random thief would do this in broad daylight are wrong. I don't know the statistics for where you live, but where I live most burglaries happen during the day. The same thing happened to me. They pick the lock, which apparently takes all of 30 seconds (if you google/youtube lock bumping you'll see how ridiculously easy it is), and are out within a minute. We also discussed noise with the police (in a "how to prevent this happening again" talk), talked about a thief throwing in a window. I assumed the thief would not have done that because of the noise. The police took our box with empty glass bottles in the garden and shook it around. "See", he said, "nothing happens and thieves know that". Possibly the same goes for a golden retriever dog. I know I don't get up when I hear a neighbour's dog bark during the day, especially if it stops soon (because of the food).

I have since heard this from more people, always laptops or wallets. It's really not rare, and them taking just a few easily grabbable things is what they do, not strange at all for this kind of burglary (though of course people who have a key stealing from you probably isn't rare either and I have no idea which is more likely in your case). Sometimes thieves even get in while people are at home (on preview: yes, exactly what batmonkey says). I would still change all the locks (for unbumpable locks) and not give keys away anymore. I would also not hesitate to ask the police to elaborate on this, tell them you think it is unlikely it was a random person because of your specific situation and see what they say.

I'm sorry. I know how much this sucks, losing a laptop is terrible, and not feeling safe in your home and not trusting anyone anymore is too.
posted by davar at 12:38 AM on December 7, 2011


Just to correct that excellent link from justkevin:

And the monkeys must grab the bags of money and not just shriek and go running all over the place, like they did in the practice run.
posted by pete_22 at 3:47 AM on December 7, 2011


Considering the dog, it was someone who new he is a 'cupcake'.

Or just someone who knows dogs. Lets assume the door was indeed unlocked:

If I were a thief who was trying back doors, and I saw a retriever looking at me but not barking, that wouldn't be a deterrent. I'd pop open the door, quietly adopt a friendly demeanor and grab the stuff.

Taking food out to distract the dog sounds like one of those "pro tip" things that would be known by a reasonably experienced thief. Of course, it's possible that it's an inside job and one of the people who's been in your house has a second job as a burglar, but the presence of a retriever doesn't automatically mean that it was an inside job.

It could be an inside job, but you also don't know for sure that the house was locked. No signs of forced entry, it sounds like the experienced cops know what they're talking about: some junky was in the alley trying doors and found yours open. They saw the friendly dog, slid in and pulled some food from the fridge (a technique they had previously used/had knowledge of), grabbed the stuff and bolted. One minute tops.

The creepiest part of this is that the stranger probably didn't know whether you were home or not. They just took a chance that if you were, you wouldn't come in the room for the time it took to do this.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:01 AM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I was going to say the same thing about the dog. Unless they are specifically trained security dogs, most will be fooled by someone entering confidently, not viewing her as a threat, and then going to the fridge and giving her some food. That is a comfort pattern for the dog.

My mom recently got a dog from a rescue. I'd only met the dog once, and then had to go over to the house when only the dog was home. The poor thing was freaked out, and I just stood in the entryway talking to her for a little while. When she calmed down a little, I went and got her a treat and we've been pals ever since.

The best way to reduce the chances of this happening again is to make sure valuable items aren't visible. And ask your insurance agent what things you can do to prevent this from happening again. It's a safe bet that anything they give a discount for (alarms, types of locks, etc.) will reduce the chances.
posted by gjc at 7:00 AM on December 7, 2011


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