1. A little home security goes a long way.
It s official: We live in a society increasingly obsessed with the technology of safety. According to Security Sales & Integration magazine, Americans spent $28.2 billion on electronic security systems in 2009, up from $25.9 billion in 2006. Yet crime in general, and burglaries in particular, have been steadily decreasing. As comforting as it may be to have an elaborate alarm system the average home-security package costs about $1,400 for installation and equipment, and about $23 a month to monitor the reality is that you can deter most break-ins much more cheaply.
There are lots of proactive and inexpensive ways you can protect your home from a break-in, says Frank Santamorena, founder of Security Experts, a security services company in New York. Lighting works wonders. Merely keeping the boundaries of your house ( perimeters in security lingo) well lit perhaps with motion-sensor lights, which cost less than $100 will discourage most burglars. But since the majority of home break-ins occur during the day, when people are away at work, experts suggest a few additional precautions. Keep hedges trimmed low to minimize hiding space around the house, and make sure there s a good, strong lock installed on every door. And many homeowners make the mistake of putting their name on their mailbox. A burglar can get your phone number and find out if you re not home immediately, without even having to knock on the door, says Santamorena.
2. The cops can t hear your alarm.
Think your alarm will ring right in your local police station? Forget about it. The majority of today s home security alarms ring in a so-called central station, where monitors will phone your house, ask for a code word, and notify the police if you don t respond. That central station can be anything from a boiler room downtown to a concrete bunker in another state, and it may or may not be manned by your security company, but rather a third-party subcontractor.
Not thrilled with the idea of having your alarm ringing 1,000 miles away at a company you ve never heard of? You should be. For one thing, a feel for local conditions might come in handy when your life is at stake. You re better off being with a local alarm company with a central station than you are with a national company, says Santamorena. And more than that, he says, you want a UL-listed system. That means the product is certified by Underwriters Laboratories and is mandated to meet certain standards that, for instance, ensure there s backup power in case of a power failure, he says.
3. This system is more trouble than it s worth.
Sales of systems might be up, but once they re installed, not all folks actually use them. It could be that they re worried about false alarms or that they only set the alarm when they re away for an extended period. It could be that the way the system is laid out and designed doesn t work well with their particular lifestyle, says Scott Goldfine, editor of Security Sales & Integration. They might have small children or cleaning staff who tend to set it off, or house guests who don t the code.
Any system that you have installed, it s important you get the proper training on how to use it. And you want to use it every day, says Michael Miller, president of the Electronic Security Association (ESA), an industry group.
4. The local police hate us.
If you have an alarm system installed in your home, one thing is almost certain: You will trigger false alarms. This is, of course, a nuisance in itself. But the real problem is that police departments know it. Nationwide, the majority of alarm calls are false, rendering alarms overall reliability quite thin. In some locales, the police have responded by fining homeowners for repeat false alarms.
Phoenix, for one, allows residents three after the third, it s $75 a pop. A third false alarm in Santa Monica, Calif., costs homeowners $136.70; after that you ll get hit with a $180 fine. In Montgomery County, Md., officers may not respond at all to homes that have had multiple previous false alarms. "If it s the fourth one today and there s nothing unusual about the alarm, or the alarm company advises it s a malfunction or error, the supervisor has discretionary authority to cancel the call," says Corporal Dan Friz, a spokesman for the department.
But there s a concerted effort by the security-alarm industry and local authorities to reduce false alarms. Working with the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, an umbrella trade group, several states have implemented ordinances that require homeowners to register their alarm systems with the local police. The regulation also mandates new equipment standards and two-call verification, so an alarm monitoring station will attempt to confirm an alarm by contacting the homeowner at two different phone numbers before requesting a response.
5. We ll try to sell you expensive gadgets you don t really need.
Security experts and police generally agree that an effective home-security system contains both perimeter and interior sensing devices. Each system can each include some impressive-sounding gear. Perimeter alarms might have magnetic or plunger contacts; foiling, vibration, or shock detectors; and window screens that hold concealed alarm wire for perimeter alarms. And interior alarms might involve pressure mats, photoelectric beams that cast infrared light, heat sensors, and motion detectors. But just because all these gizmos are available doesn t mean you need every one to have a sound security system.
Before making any purchases, homeowners should do an assessment of their home to determine what exactly they re trying to protect. Not all alarms and gadgets are right for all homes, and this mostly depends on the individual characteristics of your property. Consider how large your home is and how many potentially vulnerable entrances there are.
You don t need an alarm on every window, but motion detectors need to be placed in key points, says Jim McGuffey, a security consultant in Philadelphia. Once the doors have been protected and motion sensors installed in key areas like staircases and hallways leading to bedrooms, a house should be pretty well set.
6. Our rent-a-cops are very low-rent.
Many home-security firms offer some kind of guard service along with alarm monitoring. Some drive company-owned patrol cars, and some even carry weapons. Yet in spite of the high level of responsibility for these jobs, the standards for training are uneven. While most states require that security guards be licensed, California-- which does run background checks you need only be 18 years old, have $102 for the application fee and submit to 40 hours of training.
McGuffey recommends homeowners who hire private guards to ask if the company conducts criminal background checks on their personnel. I would also ask: What kind of training do you give your guard force, he says.
The security-system industry is actually pushing Congress to mandate criminal background checks for employees of companies that install burglar alarm, fire alarm and other types of security systems. Now, individual states decide whether background checks are required. These companies send installers and technicians into homes, business and schools, and we want to make sure they don t have criminal backgrounds, especially if an employee is coming from another state, says ESA s Miller.
7. Getting past our alarms is tough unless you have a pair of scissors.
Last year, nearly a dozen homes in Lewisville, outside Dallas, were burglarized. In an attempt to disable the alarm systems, the criminals cut power and telephone lines before forcing their way inside the homes, according to a local news report. In one case, the burglars got away with a flat-screen TV, a Wii game system and a digital camera.
The standard home alarm is transmitted over a telephone line, and getting around it requires little more than the ability to figure out where the line is and the skill to handle a good pair of wire cutters. Most alarm companies now offer some sort of backup protection, which typically consists of a radio or cellular device that notifies the central station your line has been cut. But these backup systems can cost a lot more around several hundred dollars extra in addition to monthly charges.
There are ways around this if that expense is out of your budget. If your home s cables come from the ground up, Santamorena suggests paying someone to dig a foot or so down, through foundation of the house, and snake the wire through there, so they re hidden from sight. The key is to make sure the phone lines aren t coming up on the side of the house, he says.
8. We may use unethical sales tactics.
These days, homeowners need to beware of salespeople who come knocking. The Better Business Bureau received nearly 3,000 complaints about burglar-alarm companies in 2009, up from 2,087 in 2008. Many complainants allege that the salesperson used high-pressure tactics and made claims that were not included in the final contract, according to the BBB.
Last month, the Electronic Security Association announced a new code of ethics for door-to-door sales in an effort to cut down on deceptive pitches. Rogue salespeople, as the ESA called them in a statement, have been making headlines with lawsuits filed by major security-alarm companies against door-to-door salespeople for misleading customers. Just last month, ADT Security Services filed a suit against three employees of another company, alleging that during a sales call one salesperson coerced a 95-year-old Tennessee woman into switching out her ADT system and signing a contract with another firm.
For now, the ESA is relying on companies to self-enforce its new ethics code, which requires sales representatives to carry photo ID and bars them from making false statements about competing organizations. The BBB advises consumers to deal only with reputable firms and to check out the offer and compare bids from several installers.
9. You re stuck with us.
One common complaint from alarm system customers is that their alarm contracts renew automatically. Unless there is a specific request that you want to cancel your service, your contract will be renewed anywhere from one to five years, depending on the company. Many homeowners don t mark their calendars with their home-security system contract s expiration date. If you re in a three-year contract, and don t make a point of sending a letter of cancellation before it expires, you could be hooked into another three-year term.
Ken Kirschenbaum, an attorney who represents home security companies, says auto renewal is not unique to the alarm industry, and provides an important service for the consumer. Without an auto renewal provision, those services would terminate at the end of a contract, he says, leaving the subscriber without this essential protection.
Some states, such as Utah, require written notice to the consumer before a contract can automatically renew (for consumer contracts in general, not just security firms). Either way, homeowners should read their contracts including the fine print carefully for automatic renewal language. Contracts should indicate a time frame in which customers can give written notice that they want to disconnect the service.
10. If you have a pet, we might be less effective.
Some alarms say they are pet-immune, allowing your furry friends to move freely around the house. Others say they can reliably distinguish between human bodies and pets weighing up to 80 pounds. But as recently as 2009, 27% of false alarms were attributed to pets, according to Security Sales & Integration. One potential culprit: the feline of the house. Cats can get anywhere and they move in crazy ways, says Goldfine.
It also matters how furniture is situated. If the pattern of detection includes, say, a book case, a cat can potentially climb up on that and get in the alarm s line of detection. If you re getting them installed in your house and you have pets, I would have that discussion with the installing company to find out how well they really work, says Goldfine.