Crime fighting got easier as burglars reveal all

Each was encouraged to think aloud, telling researchers what was going through their minds as they first scoped the neighborhood, then entered a house and clicked on things they’d steal.

They could stay in the house for as long as they wanted, and click on as many items as they liked.

One of the burglars said: “You look at what people live in, what people are driving, and you can work out what they may own, may have, what money they might have, what jewelry, whatever it might be, you can pretty much picture it in your head what could be inside a building, inside a garage, inside a cupboard.”

Three quarters of burglars targeted the end of terrace house, choosing the back door to enter, while less than half of the other two groups chose this house, and even fewer chose to enter by the back door.

Burglars spent about nine minutes inside, spending nearly half their time on the first floor.

Non-experts were more chaotic, with no clear pattern in their behavior and chose larger heavier items such as TVs and PCs that would be difficult to escape with.

Discussing the time he spent in first floor bedrooms, one burglar said: “A jewelry box can have more money than an entire house.”

Another said: “The first thing a burglar does is go upstairs and look for gold. You wanna look for small items, expensive items.”

Burglars were twice as likely to find the three highest value items – a ring, passport and necklace hidden in a jewelry box in a filing cabinet in the study.

Experienced burglars shunned the basic iPad, unlike others, preferring the upmarket version.

“For burglars it seems to be second nature to be aware how long they could spend in a house before any hidden alarms would bring police, and which rooms and areas in the house had the highest value, easiest to carry and easiest to sell items,” Nee said.

The researchers noted that the burglars and other criminal group expressed some unease while committing the mock crime, unlike the non-criminals, indicating that the virtual environment was successfully reinstating the experience of undertaking the burglary. The researchers were also surprised how forthcoming they were once within the virtual environment.

Nee said: “A considerable body of research tells us that an expert in any domain, from chess to medicine, processes information in their field in a way that is distinguishably different to a novice. Now we have incontrovertible evidence that this applies to experienced offenders as well.

“Criminals commonly dedicate themselves to a type of crime. An experienced burglar can quickly recognize in any house the layout, ease of access, degree of wealth and security. Once inside, they are quick to identify items that are high in value and easy to carry.

“Law-abiding people are notoriously poor at understanding burglary risk and the opportunities they leave for crime inside and outside their homes.

“We very much hope research like this helps them get inside the expert burglar’s head, giving them much more chance of protecting their property.”

— Read more in Claire Nee et al., “Learning on the job: Studying expertise in residential burglars using virtual environments,” Criminology (3 May 2019) (