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Smart Consumer: How to catch a thief . . . (. . . by an ex-thief)

John Daly gets some safety tips from burglar-turned-TV star Mike Fraser

Mike Fraser knows what it takes to stop burglars in their tracks -- because he was once one himself. The author and star of the television series To Catch a Thief and Beat the Burglar is the ultimate 'poacher-turned-gamekeeper' -- and has plenty of good advice for security-conscious homeowners.

"You need to think like a burglar to stop a burglar," says Mike. "Our homes are our castles, but often we don't protect them."

Fraser's unstable upbringing was a factor in him turning to crime in his youth.

"By the age of four, I found myself in the first of many care homes," Fraser says of his disadvantaged childhood. "Ninety per cent of people in care go on to crime."

He began his career as a burglar in his teens. But Fraser made a decision to change his life at 18: "I was terrified of going to prison; 30 years ago they were terrible places," he says.

Coming "within a whisker" of a prison sentence, Fraser managed to find a part-time job labouring with a small aluminium company. "The owner took a risk on me," he says.

He now advises organisations like Churchill Insurance, RAC, London Borough Council and the Hertfordshire Criminal Justice Board on security issues. He is also a director of the Apex Trust, an organisation helping ex-criminals get a new start by providing them with the trade skills for the labour market.

"Unfamiliar faces in your area, looking at houses as they walk along are typical burglar advance tactics as they case likely properties," he says. Strangers at the door asking for people who don't live there is often a front to allow them to get a closer look.

"Adopt a burglar's way of thinking," Fraser advises.

Social media websites where people share much of their personal lives are a magnet for thieves, Fraser believes. "I call it 'internet shopping for burglars'. I'm amazed about how easily people share their home addresses, holiday plans, the new jewellery and electronic equipment they've bought."

He is similarly cautious of auctioneers' sites with video clips of houses and their interiors. "Estate agents film every room in a house and put it all up there on a website."

Something as basic as a broken front gate can be an invitation. "If it's broken, fix it," he says. "It's the first psychological barrier to keeping a burglar away." A single lock on the front door is another invitation presenting little hindrance.

Thieves are rarely deterred by 'Beware of the Dog' signs. "Even if you do have a dog, a thief will think that you probably leave your back door open to let the animal into the garden," he says.

If the front of a house looks weak to an opportunist burglar, the back will probably be even weaker. "As soon as a thief can get around to the back of your home, he knows he's probably safe."

Chain up plastic wheelie bins as they can be used as ladders or even for carrying the stolen items, he advises. Similarly, patio sets and unlocked ladders can be used to gain entry to the first floor.

The most recent annual eircom PhoneWatch Burglary Report shows Dublin continues to top Ireland's burglary table, increasing by 13pc and accounting for 42pc of all burglaries.

When this figure is combined with the surrounding commuter belt of Wicklow, Kildare, Meath and Louth, it climbs to 63pc of all burglaries nationwide.

The data also reinforces previous findings that burglars no longer strike solely under the cover of darkness. For the fifth year in a row, the most likely time of day to be burgled is between 12pm and 4pm.

"Over the 11 years that we have reported on burglary in Ireland, one insight remains constant -- burglary regardless of boom or bust is a crime phenomenon which is simply not going away," says Eoin Dunne, MD of eircom Phonewatch, Ireland's largest provider of integrated alarm systems.

Mike Fraser's book, How Safe is Your Home?, details how thieves often jam a brush against the front door to give them precious moments to escape.

"Once a burglar is in your house, he'll first look for keys and a calendar. Your calendar will be very useful for any clues about when you're scheduled to be out of the house."

Taking smaller items like jewellery and electronics, burglars will often trash the house before leaving, as a cover. "When homeowners return to a messy house, they will normally be so concerned about expensive jewellery and items of sentimental value that keys are one of the last things they think of," says Fraser. "A burglar will then return to finish the job within seven to 10 days if the locks haven't been changed."

Fraser cautions homeowners against ever confronting a burglar. "If you hear a burglar, lock yourself in a bedroom. Then open a window and scream as loud as you can," he says. "Burglars hate noise of any sort, and all they'll want to do is escape."

Irish Independent