Home Security Tips – Beyond the Security Alarm

 

A student of mine was concerned with potential break-ins and theft, and recently asked me about home-based wireless alarm systems and if they are secure. I told the student that anything can be compromised given some brains and perseverance. But with the right mindset, a wireless alarm can very well increase the security of a home. However, I like to think of an alarm system as just a single piece of the entire security puzzle. When it comes to thieves, break-ins, and protecting yourself and your family from attackers, here’s how I break down home security.

Note: This article only discusses home security as it pertains to theft and unlawful entry. It does not discuss protecting against fire, natural disasters, and so on.

1. Lighting

In my opinion the number one method to prevent break-ins is good lighting. Every doorway and easily accessible window should have some kind of light nearby. To save on energy costs, combine lights that are activated via motion detector with lights that operate on timers. Consider battery-operated lighting as a backup source as well (but careful, some of these can eat up batteries and drive your costs through the roof). Let’s focus in on flood lights and decorative security lights with built-in motion sensors.

Flood lights offer the most coverage. By utilizing a flood light fixture with two lamps, you can cover up to 180 degrees and light up a front or back yard. There are several companies such as Lithonia that make a wide variety of flood lights. See this link for an inexpensive example.

The higher you install these the better. You don’t want them to be installed below eight feet because they can be quite blinding. Remember that these are designed to flood a large area with light. However, they might cast shadows over doorways and windows. So, they work well to light a yard, driveway, or approach to an entrance, but usually not the entrance itself.

!! WARNING !! – If you are not qualified to install lighting then contact an electrician.

For front, side and back entrances to a home, consider a decorative replacement security light with built-in motion sensor. These can also work well as a replacement for the light in a light post, say near a driveway or walkway. They can save money because the light only turns on when activated by motion (body heat). However these often required incandescent bulbs and wont work properly with CFL bulbs (because of their warm up time among other reasons), so using energy saving bulbs such as fluorescent won’t be possible.

A basic example of a decorative replacement security light can be found here. These kind of replacements cost in the neighborhood of $35. Note where the sensor for this light is located – near the top. This means that the light should not be installed too high, otherwise the sensor will not function. Anything higher than 6 or 7 feet will cause the sensor to not register human body heat correctly.

These work very well for illuminating a doorway and will deter most would-be lock-pickers and many people who would kick in the door. But, as you need to remember to lock your doors, you also need to remember to keep the light switch on at all times for these lights to be an effective security precaution. You can also find post-mountable versions of these that have an even wider sensor arc. Most of these lights have a built-in function where if you flick the light off and on rapidly the light will remain on until you shut it off again, overriding the default timer setting.

Speaking of timers, the good old timer is an excellent way to have lights stay on for a specific amount of time. These are often used indoors to keep a lamp on at night. I discuss this more in the “Appear as if you are home” section

If you don’t want to run the added effort and expense of installing wired lighting, consider a battery operated motion-detecting light.

Devices such as the one at this link can be a good option for areas that are tough to get electrical wire to. They also work well as a backup method if the power goes out. If you were anywhere in the area where Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast a few years back, then you know that some extra backup lighting can be beneficial. That of course goes into a whole separate topic of how to prepare for the event of a long-term power loss. But I digress… There are cons to these devices. First, they are never as bright as they are marketed to be, or as bright as you think they might be. Second, they eat batteries. Consider that many of them use alkaline batteries, and then consider what happens to alkaline batteries in the extreme cold or heat. In addition, some of these devices use D batts, which are expensive, and might not last too long, even if the light uses LED technology. But if you are okay with buying and replacing batteries periodically, then this can be a good method to light up small areas that are otherwise difficult to get AC-wired lights to.

This only scratches the surface of the types of lighting that are available. Do some additional research and find the lighting that works best for your home. And remember, if you are not capable; hire a qualified electrician to do the work.

2. Secure doors & windows

You’d be surprised how many people have a simple hollow door with only a doorknob lock. A burglar will look for this type of door and can kick it in within moments, closing the door quickly, going unnoticed in many cases. Solution: Consider solid core construction such as fiberglass, solid wood, or steel. Not only will this be more secure, but it will help to decrease heating and cooling bills. The door hinge screws should be mounted through the frame and into the studs beyond with at least one 3-inch screw per hinge. Hinges should not be exposed, and should be replaced if they appear to be rusted or oxidized. Be sure to have a deadbolt lock in addition to the doorknob lock. The deadbolt lock’s strike plate should also be mounted with at least one 3-inch screw. When locked, this makes it quite difficult to kick in the door because the burglar would have to kick in not only the door, but also the door frame, and do it forcefully enough to rip the screws from the studs surrounding the frame—not an easy task. The weakest link is the deadbolt strike plate.

Of course you can get bigger and stronger strike plates such as this one. These require some chiseling of the door jamb, but their added strength is an excellent idea if you are concerned about a person coming and kicking in the door. (It is terrible to have to be concerned about this sort of thing, but in a world such as ours, it is understandable.) You can go even further and get a longer door frame reinforcer such as this one. These are installed along the jamb, but you want to make sure they will fit before making the investment.

 

You might also opt for something that attaches to the ground, for example, a door barricade such as this one. This one mounts to the floor and the top piece slides out when it is time to leave the house.

The options are virtually endless. You could easily blow your budget with add-on items for door security, so analyze your entry carefully and decide which option is best for you. But again, the best way is to purchase a strong door, install a decent deadbolt lock (ANSI Grade 1 certified), and use 3-inch screws in the hinges and the in deadbolt strike plate. Avoid doors with large windows, or windows near the lock. (Consider installing a peephole or purchasing a door with one instead of a door with a window.) If you do have a window in the door, you can purchase a security grille that can be installed from the inside. This will deter an intruder from breaking the glass and reaching in to unlock the door. Another less common door option is to select an outward opening door. Using the proper security hinges, these are virtually impossible to kick in unless you have a battering ram. These must be installed carefully to allow for water drainage, and to ensure that they are secure.

Now, people go bonkers over the type of lock and whether or not it can be picked. Look on YouTube and you will be astounded at the amount of videos on the subject. DefCon has an entire area reserved for lock picking. But the simple truth is this—given time, any lock can be picked, even if you install cylinder guards and other protective measures for the lock. However, it doesn’t matter as much as you might think. For most would-be intruders, lock picking in the real world is not easy work, even when picking the cheapest of locks. Most burglars want to get in the easy way; an unlocked door is best, and a weak door is next on the list. In fact, its often more common for an intruder to smash a lock with a hammer and, if necessary, use heavy duty tools to unlock it, than it is for the intruder to attempt to pick the lock. That’s why they call it a “break-in”, because the actual, physical break-in is the most common. If you lock both the doorknob lock and the bolt lock, you effectively double the time it would take for a lock picker (or lock smasher). Add good lighting and it will deter most thieves. Going further add a storm door (with a lock) and you have made your front door quite secure, plus you will probably save on heating bills in the winter. I’m a fan of Anderson/Emco storm doors because they look nice, have excellent features, stand up well over time, and most of them will effectively pay for themselves within 10 years of heating/cooling costs.

Note: There are other locks as well: electronic locks, cipher locks, proximity swipes, smart cards, and so on. But for the home, these are usually not cost-effective. Plus, it’s a big topic… another post for another day.

That’s a lot to think about. But don’t forget other doors in the house too. Repeat the process for side doors and back doors. Sliding glass doors are a common target. They are often in the back of the house where no one is looking. Thieves will sometimes attempt quick smash and grabs at this entry point. These doors should have tempered double-pane glass, with security locks at the top and bottom. Consider a bar to prevent the door from opening, and a security grille for the glass also. (You might consider a sliding glass door that incorporates security grills. These might have more aesthetic value than add-on grilles.) Any large area of glass (for example that a person can fit through), especially in the back of the house, becomes a target, even if the owners are home. So consider glass doors very carefully. And remember the garage door! Many garage doors come with locks, and then there is the old school bolt latch that goes across the length of the door. Use these. When you lock the doors at night, lock the garage door as well. This deters the thief with the scanning device that can find the frequency of the garage door opener. Use all of these general concepts for sheds, Bilco doors, and other utility entrances.

Windows can be safeguarded in a variety of ways as well. Obviously I’m going to suggest closing them and locking them. (The only thing more criminal than the malicious intruder is the owner who consistently forgets to lock up the house.) Upgrading them is also a good idea if they are older (windows that is, not the owners). For example, older single-pane windows are easier to smash than double-pane windows. And newer windows come with security tabs that you can pull out which allows you to keep the window open a bit, but denies entry to would-be thieves. If you don’t want to upgrade your windows and don’t have window tabs, you can add a third-party locking mechanism, which will lock the window but allow it to be opened slightly for ventilation. Prime-Line has window locks that fit this description, for example the one in the image below.

These can take a lot of abuse. Of course, if a person is really determined (and has a crowbar or other tool) then the security measure can be defeated. But again, think in layers. Make sure the window is not easily accessible, add lighting, and so on, and a security measure such as this will usually do the job.

Some newer windows also offer security glass which is tempered, harder to break, and difficult to scribe with a window cutter. Regardless of the type and age of the window, ground floor windows should always be locked at night. Do a visual survey of your house and make sure there is nothing that a person could easily stand on to gain access to a window. Some homes (such as split level design and other similar architectures) have 2nd floor windows that are accessible from a first floor roof. These windows should be carefully examined and locked at night as well. The security alarm can take your window security to a whole other level, and I’ll talk about that more later in this post.

3. Don’t leave things lying about your property

What are we talking about here? Toys, tools, lawn equipment, bicycles, and items in plain view within your vehicle. All of these things will attract the attention of would-be thieves. Not only could they be stolen, but items of value tell the intruder that you might have even better items of value inside your house. Most importantly, they are easy to spot, and make your home stand out more to a thief.

Keep items in the car stowed away, and of course lock the car and set its alarm if it has one.

Note: If you live in a state where vehicles need only have rear license plates, consider backing your vehicle into the driveway when you get home, or simply garaging the car if possible. A license plate number is a form of PII, and the less visible it is the better. Plus, if you do this, the plate number won’t be displayed in popular search engine maps.

Here’s a newsflash, many thieves use ladders to get into a home. Some bring small step ladders to easily access first floor windows, but some make use of ladders owned by the target homeowner. Longer ladders offer a way to access upper level windows which might be unlatched, especially in the summertime. Ladders should be properly stowed in a locked shed or similar. If they are too long for that, consider using a bicycle lock or other locking mechanism to securely attach them to something around the household (for example, behind the shed or somewhere else out of view).

Some malicious individuals walk down the street at night and try every car door. Other bad guys ring doorbells during the day. It’s a sad truth, these people are out there. They are on the lookout for valuable items lying around, open garages, unlocked vehicles, and even delivered packages at the front door step. The attack often comes in the early morning (between 2am and 6am) or could happen any time of day if it is a quiet street.

The key in #3 is to be as nondescript as possible. The less you stand out, the less chance a thief will take notice of you. Fly under the radar so to speak. If you were to drive down your street and identify the house that jumps out at you, that’s probably going to be the #1 target. Don’t be that house (as if a person could be such a thing).

4. Appear as if you are home!

If you are going away for a period of time longer than a day consider putting lights on timers, using fake TV technology, and so on, to make it appear that someone is home. In the winter time, have a neighbor or friend (that you trust implicitly) make tracks to and from vehicles and the front door. Consider installing lights with motion detectors. Have someone collect the mail for you every day or two and check for flyers in the front door or for other deliveries. You can also have the post office hold your mail for a period of time. Some burglars will place flyers in the mailbox flag or in the front door and watch everyday to see if they have been removed. They will also watch newspapers that have been piling up over time. In warmer weather, have someone mow the grass while you are gone, but not some person who just knocked on your door one day. Always run background checks to the best of your ability before allowing contractors or other service people into your home. Always be on the lookout for social engineers and con artists. Consider asking for ID whenever a person such as a utility worker, meter checker, or other supposedly authorized person comes to your home. And of course, lock all doors and windows, and arm any alarms before you go, even if you are late.

Here’s an example of fake technology (see this link for more). Devices such as these can be set to run at particular times, or you could plug them into your own timer device to create a pattern that is less obvious. Be careful with social networking websites. If you post a picture of yourself on vacation, that information could get into the wrong hands. Black hat computer experts use a concept known as data aggregation to find out information about a particular person from many different sources. By combining the different pieces of information, the attacker can learn a lot about you that you’d rather keep private. There are even software tools that allow a person to discern where you are at just about any given time. Don’t let these people gain the upper hand. Be very careful what you disseminate online, and what pictures you post.

The key here in #4 is sort of the opposite of #3; you want to stand out… at least a little bit. I know, I’m contradicting myself (it’s a common occurrence), but I think you get my drift. Appear as if you are home in the wee hours, but don’t stand out like a sore thumb. 🙂

 

5. Consider that alarm system

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post (which is becoming a bit of a long post…), the security alarm is just a piece of the puzzle. I place it at number 5 because I really feel that the previous concepts can be much more beneficial to you. But, when you consider the idea of defense in depth, you realize that the more components to your security plan, the better… as long as you don’t go broke – which is a distinct possibility when it comes to alarm systems.

Not only is defense in depth an important concept for your entire security plan, but you should also consider layers of security when it comes to the alarm system. For example, install window and door sensors, plus motion sensors, plus glass break sensors (and possibly a Doberman…). Make sure the siren has a backup energy source. Verify that the wireless authentication process (if the system is wireless) is properly encrypted and password protected, and utilize a reliable monitoring service. This layering of security will help your alarm system to work at its best and provide you with the highest level of security. However, keep in mind that alarm systems can really break your budget; especially when it comes to monitoring. I won’t go into the different big security monitoring companies out there; we all know who they are because they advertise so much. But with this advertising comes a hefty monthly monitoring bill – from $35 to $50 per month – forever. So plan accordingly.

For those of you who aren’t interested in a company coming in and making Swiss cheese out of your home to run a wired alarm system, consider a wireless alarm. There are many of these available and you can install them yourself. One popular wireless alarm system is Simplisafe. The brains are elsewhere from the keypad (a nice security feature), and it is easily scalable, plus it offers cheaper monitoring than the big companies. You have to pay for the components, but you can buy them as you need them. Plus the alarm system can come with you if you move. If you are okay with the implications of a wireless system, this solution can start saving you money over the long term (within two to three years on average).

All the alarm manufacturers and service providers want you to put their sticker on your door or a sign in the yard with their logo. I despise this practice and strongly suggest against it. Here’s why: 1.) When you display the type of alarm you own, or the particular company that monitors your house, you tell a malicious person exactly what you are using. Remember that every system can be circumvented, and you’d be surprised how easy it can be sometimes. Why give the attacker any white-box information? Keep them in the dark I say. 2.) This sounds counter-intuitive, but people with security alarms often lull themselves into a false sense of security. Meaning that sometimes they forget to lock their doors, or arm the system, or both. It happens, and some thieves realize this. Because of these two reasons the alarm sign actually isn’t much of a deterrent. The would-be intruder might still attempt to gain access to your home, if he or she thinks that there are items of value inside that would make it worth while. Think about it. The malicious person might often try the most common approach and simply check if the door is open. If the alarm is on and the door is locked, they won’t get in, and probably try another entrance or move to the next house. And the alarm won’t sound (unless you have additional sensors which are uncommon). If the door is unlocked, then the system is probably not armed, and the intruder gains access. If the alarm is activated, most intruders know that it takes some time for the alarm company to contact the individual, and then the police. Then it takes time for the police to arrive. The savvy (or shall we say seedy) individual knows all this and might either walk away when the alarm sounds, or they might attempt to grab whatever they can within 30 seconds (which could be a lot – these guys know exactly where to look).

You might argue that you can install advanced sensors, and a CCTV system and record the potential intruder’s movements. And you can if you wish, but what is the cost? How much time is involved? How often do all of these devices need maintenance, or fail altogether? How well do all of these devices really work? Is it all worth it? That will depend on what you keep in your home. If you feel you are in an area where these things will protect your family better, then by all means, go for it. If you keep two hundred gold coins sitting on your dining room table, then have at it. If you are a high-profile personality, then it becomes imperative. But for the rest of us who pretty much live under the radar (don’t mention the NSA please), and live in an economy where money goes out just as quickly as it comes in, it becomes far less important.

It all boils down to the fact that the alarm system is not the be-all and end-all of security, far from it. Remember that the alarm system works best as a piece of your security plan. We could talk about alarms until we are blue in the face, but remember that good lighting is one of the best ways to prevent break-ins. That and perhaps not having a shiny red sports car in the driveway. 🙂

Note: Another reason I dislike the practice of displaying an alarm vendor’s logo is because the customer ends up doing free marketing for the company. Unless the company is offering the service for free, the customer is simply getting ripped off. Usually they will discount something like 10%, and that drives me mad. But I digress…

6. Consider other deterrents

Moving on in this extraordinarily long post… You might consider other deterrents. Fencing and gates add obstacles for the intruder, making it more difficult to enter, and even more difficult to escape quickly.

A barking dog is good way of discouraging an attacker or thief. Some people swear by this method, but in reality it is fairly easy to neutralize a dog, even the act of a dog barking. I won’t go into exactly how, but safe to say, it’s not wise to rely on a dog alone. But it certainly can be a good deterrent. And if you don’t want to be bothered taking care of a dog, you could get an electronic watchdog such as the one at this link – basically a speaker that projects a barking sound when an intruder’s motion is detected. Now, I mentioned that I don’t agree with using a security monitoring company’s sign, but a “beware of dog” sign can be pretty effective, even if you don’t have a dog. In most cases, intruders would rather brave an alarm system than a dog, even a fake dog (if the intruder can’t tell the difference).

Speaking of fake, you might not have the funds for a video surveillance system but you might opt for fake video camera technology. For under $10 you should be able to get a fake camera such as this one (that looks fairly real) and attach it to your house in just several minutes. The longest part of the process would be dragging out the required ladder (which you of course keep stowed away… for security purposes), because you would want to install this out of arm’s reach. Some people can pick out fake video cameras, but if a burglar is at that level, then you have more important things to worry about.

By the way, a real video system won’t prevent intrusion, but they can detect it in real-time if monitored, and record it if the necessary recording equipment is available. It’s important to understand the differences between preventive security measures, detective security measures, and corrective security measures.

Another deterrent is to keep the perimeter of your house clean and neat and don’t allow shrubs or trees to grow too big or too close to the house. These can offer hiding places for intruders. If you do opt to get a security alarm with a company that offers monitoring service, look for one that will do a site survey of your house. They might point out some glaring security vulnerabilities that you (as the owner of the home) can easily miss.

On a bit of a side note, you might want to consider a safe for your valuables. A wall-mounted safe with combination lock is the best option if you are away from home for extended periods of time. Even if an intruder gains access and has a lot of time (which for all intents and purposes is 5 to 15 minutes), it will be difficult for the person to gain access to the safe, or perhaps to even find it (especially if you hide it behind the portrait of your in-laws… oops now the cat’s out of the bag…) Don’t rely on the little suitcase sized “safes” as they call them. These are really meant to protect documents from fire, not to hold cash or other valuables. They can be carried away easily, and can be opened fairly easily as well.

7. Secure your wireless network

Make sure your wireless network is secure. There are also thieves that aren’t interested in breaking in physically; they want to break in to your network and steal your precious data, and potentially your personally identifiable information (PII). These people are known as wardrivers and often drive down the street with a laptop and wireless network scanning software in the hopes of finding an insecure network. They might even pose as Google Streetview photographers, meter checkers, or utility workers. Decrease the chance of their success by doing the following:

– Use the latest secure wireless protocols. For example, during the writing of this article, a good pairing would be WPA2 and AES.

– Use a strong passphrase for the wireless connections and for the admin account of the router.

– Disable WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup), it increases the vulnerability of your WAP or router.

– Place your WAP in the middle of your home. Then, reduce the antenna signal strength (if possible) so that the wireless signal does not go far beyond the perimeter of your house.

– Consider using MAC filtering.

– Consider renaming and hiding the SSID once all devices have been connected.

– Update your router with the latest firmware (and then re-configure security settings if necessary)

– Consider shutting down your wireless network when you are not at home! (Unless you have a security system that relies on it.)

– Consider a new router, for example the one at this link from Asus, or the one at this link from Linksys. Shop around for the exact router that meets your security needs.

I discuss wireless security in much more depth in the Security+ SY0-401 Cert Guide (3rd edition) available on Amazon.

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Well, that’s it for this article. Hope you benefited from it. Keep in mind that I try to stay away from an attacker’s methods (other than obvious things such as kicking in a door), as I don’t desire to broadcast those methods on my website.

David P.

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