Tricks of the trade

According to police statistics, most burglaries in Jerusalem take place during the day when no one is home. Even so, many people have reported burglaries on Friday nights and holiday evenings, when there's a good chance that religious residents are at synagogue or festive meals. According to police, one trick thieves use to find out if residents are at home is to stick a match inside the door of the apartment. If the match is still there when the thieves return, they know that no one has opened the door, ergo no one is home. Perhaps the fact that thieves don't want to break in when residents are at home is the good news. Hebrew University criminology Prof. David Weisburd points out that it's when break-ins occur when the residents are home that burglaries can turn into far worse crimes. Another trick of the trade was observed by Anna Melman after her apartment in Katamon was broken into: "We noticed that on the door frame outside the apartment, someone had scribbled in Arabic on the wall." Melman says that police told her such "tagging" was commonplace: Thieves scout which apartments are suitable for break-ins, then leave a sign for other members of their gang. Katamon resident Yosef Ashkenasy, whose home was also burgled, relates that his credit card was stolen, and the thieves succeeded in withdrawing a considerable amount of money even though they didn't have the pin or password. "Apparently there's this gadget where they can go to the ATM and check the pin number," says Ashkenasy. "The bank told me that [the thieves] changed the password at least once." What can residents do to protect themselves? The answer is, not very much. Weisburd calls the precautions people can take "target hardening" as they make a residence harder to break into than one that doesn't have such deterrences. The best that one can hope for is that burglars will be deterred by precautionary measures and choose a house that doesn't have them instead, he explains. But Prof. Doron Teichman of the law faculty of the Hebrew University says this approach poses a moral dilemma. "When someone puts in an alarm system and a sign in front of their house, the meaning of that sign is 'Please do not come into my house, go to my neighbor's house.' It's not what individuals should be doing." These efforts, he says, displace rather than deter crime. While this is true, most individuals are powerless to deter crime singlehandedly, and so some degree of target hardening makes sense. Bars on windows are essential, locks should be improved and wooden doors, which are known for being flimsy barriers, should be replaced with sturdier ones. On the other hand, bars can be sawed through, locks can be picked and where the doors are impregnable there are always windows. When it comes down to it, says Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby, there is very little that can be done to prevent break-ins. Even the level of the apartment is irrelevant, he says. If the thief sees that people are at home on the first floor, he'll keep going up until he finds an apartment that's empty, he explains. Other measures that Weisburd recommends include leaving lights on and getting a dog. The most that residents can do is be on alert for suspicious people in the neighborhood or building, Ben-Ruby says. "If you see someone going from apartment to apartment, call us."