After a long day at the office two weeks ago, an affluent Toronto businessman returned home and went upstairs to change out of his suit. He'd made it to the second-floor landing when the hair on the back of his neck stood up. His wife and kids weren't home, but he could hear breathing. He looked up and found a stranger in a hoodie and face mask staring down at him from a hole the thief had cut in the ceiling.
The burglar had brought his own power tools to cut through the shingles before dropping into the attic, and then going through the drywall. Toronto police and security specialists say brazen break-ins like this rooftop caper are dramatically on the rise, and are being perpetrated by increasingly sophisticated thieves who are targeting middle-class to high-income neighbourhoods. And it's clear the break-ins have been meticulously planned.
Mike Fenton, director of consulting and client support with Paragon Security Ltd., deals with the type of high-end clientele being targeted, and he says there's been a marked increase in second-story break-ins, via vents, skylights or holes cut into the roof. "We used to have one incident like this every five years," Mr. Fenton says. "Now one happens every three months."
Technology – specifically sites such as Google Earth – have made the thieves' jobs a whole lot easier. Derek Humble, a 20-year security expert whose company Nemesis Security Co. handles some of the city's wealthiest residents, says computer-savvy crooks can use a satellite's eye view to scrutinize rooftop access and perimeters. "They can come in close enough to see what you've got in terms of skylights, and roof vents, balconies and second-floor windows and doors," Mr. Humble says. "So these days they don't even have to walk around the neighbourhood to pick their target out."
The escalation in this kind of residential burglary comes at a time when such crimes have actually dropped. According to Police Constable Tony Vella, there have been 6,207 break-ins in 2012, compared to 6,679 in 2011, a decline of 7.1 per cent. He agrees, however, that the modus operandi of urban thieves is becoming increasingly high-tech.
And he warns that there will be a spike over the holidays. "It's the prime time of the year for thieves who know homes will be full of gifts and possibly money. They also know many families will be away visiting family or on trips."
For security reasons, most homeowners asked not to be identified. But the stories are legion, with one single woman (her thief entered through a second-floor skylight two weeks ago) saying police told her there had been four break-ins within two blocks of her home in one week. In her case, she went out to a movie at 6 p.m. and came home to a driveway full of security and police cars. "He – or she – had to have been Spider-Man to get in there. We have no idea how they got up to the roof, maybe they had a ladder. But he smashed the glass and dropped in. I'm angry and I feel violated. These people have no fear. They're willing to try anything," she said. "I thought I lived in Fort Knox. But these days no matter how secure you think you are, you're not."
Helga Stephenson, whose St. Clair-Avenue Road-area condo was broken into recently, says she wishes she had been made aware of the rash of similar crimes in her area by some kind of police outreach. "I had no idea this kind of thing was going on all around me," says Ms. Stephenson, chief executive officer of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, who lost $100,000 worth of jewellery.
"It would have been nice to have been given some kind of heads up. I live on the main floor of a condominium with a 24-hour concierge, so I just assumed I was safe. After my place was broken into through a window in the back, I found out the unit above me had also been hit. I've come to the conclusion that this is a big wake-up call for all of us."
Mr. Fenton points out that thieves are also using social media to help them pinpoint when a homeowner is out and a house is vulnerable. "Whatever you do, don't post on Twitter or Facebook that you're on a beach sipping a pina colada."
Both Mr. Fenton and Mr. Humble say prime targets include the tony enclaves of Forest Hill, Rosedale, Hoggs Hollow, Lawrence Park and other pockets of North Toronto.
A week ago, Avante Security Inc. sent an alert to its clientele, warning them of "an alarming increase in the number of break-in attempts and vandalism" in the city. The company cited half a dozen examples including a home in the Bayview and York Mills area that was entered by removing a roof vent. George Rossolatos, co-chief executive officer of Avante, says another home in the Forest Hill area had the roof cut open.
Not only are the burglars acrobatic, Mr. Fenton notes, they're fast and strong. "Even if they trip an alarm, these guys can be in and out in under four minutes. I heard of a guy in Rosedale who was seen jumping from rooftop to rooftop with a 40-pound safe. It's like To Catch a Thief meets Cirque de Soleil."
Mr. Humble says another tactic is to pull up to the front of a house in a taxi. "They knock and ask if you've ordered a taxi. If you're home and say no, they drive off. If no one answers, they go around the back, break in and grab their stash. Then they use the homeowners' luggage to take it out the front door. If you're a neighbour, you're not going to think anything of it."
Good security is expensive, but there is one low-cost deterrent that Mr. Fenton adds is worth its weight in gold: tight-knit neighbourhoods. "People need to be looking out for each other – especially this time of year."
How the experts would safeguard your home
- When going away, turn off the land-line phone ringer. Burglars will phone from outside the door and listen for the ring to know they have the right house.
- Check your insurance policy to see how often your house has to be checked. Most policies require checking the house every 72 hours.
- Have a panic button in the bedroom and a lock on the bedroom door, and never leave your cellphone charging elsewhere. Landlines may be cut, so if you hear glass breaking somewhere in the house, use your cell to call 911 from the bedroom.
- Ensure you log all your valuables, with serial numbers.
- Consider having a dog.
- Leave a radio playing to create the impression someone is home.
- Be neighbourly.
- Never let newspapers pile up outside, and be sure snow is shovelled. Don’t leave out boxes that contained pricy items.
- If you have an alarm system, make sure you activate it.
- Never warm up an empty car in driveway. Drive-by car thefts are also on the rise.
- Don’t make it easy. Don’t leave ladders outside, and trim trees close to the house that may aid a climber.
- Don’t open the door to strangers and instruct your kids and caregivers accordingly – use a security latch to enable you to partially open it.
- Limit who knows that you are away – and make sure your kids aren’t telling everyone on Twitter and Facebook what a great trip you’re having.