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Security lax in residential apartment buildings

Apartment buildings have become the main target of break and enter theft, with lock picking and bumping the main technique thieves are using to gain entry.

Speaking to the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Security Association April 14 in Toronto, Det. Chris Higgins of the Toronto Police Service told CANASA members apartments are the No. 1 target today and often by organized crime. Due to the high price of gold, jewelry is often the most sought after items and often in areas where gold is more commonly found in quantity such as the South Asian community.

Other items in demand by thieves include cash, camera equipment, DVD players, iPods and TVs — all desired by addicts looking for quick cash.

Higgins, who was speaking on “The Ins and Outs of Burglary,” said that because doorframes in most apartment buildings aren’t very strong, and few have good deadbolt locks, entry is easy.

“People need good deadbolts with good strike plates and good door frames,” said Higgins. “About 99 per cent of apartment doors I’ve ever encountered in my job I can get in on the first try.”

Because the thieves are often successful in breaking in by picking the lock and then leaving the apartment unit locked again with no sign of forced entry, the superintendent or assistant super often becomes the most likely suspect as tenants think it must have been someone who has a key to their unit.

Convincing property management companies and building superintendents to invest in high-security locks is a challenge though, says Carol Lovell of Security Locksmith & Design in Toronto. She says security is always at the bottom of the list unless it’s a high-end condo building.

“My biggest challenge is that a lot of building superintendents are ignorant and don’t understand the difference in a high-security lock. I’ve done presentations to some condo boards and they have gone with a Medeco product to prevent bumping and picking and easy drill-out,” says Lovell. “But you can have the Mercedes of locks on the door (and) still kick it in because the frame of the door is usually construction grade.”

Often, Lovell says, keys issued to tenants in apartment buildings are worn out, rounded from use and have no depth.

“Tenants don’t realize they have the right to have their locks changed and can choose the lock they want. When I lived in an apartment I did that and gave the super a copy of the key,” she says.


In one case, Higgins said a “pro” from an organized crime ring who was a on a visitor visa from another country hit 200 apartments just by lock picking.

When thieves hit an apartment building they will often go down a hallway and tape over peep holes first so that any neighbours that may be home at the time and hear something won’t be able to see into the hallway.
Apartment buildings with hallways that go off in different direction from the elevators are also more desirable targets for thieves, as they know they are less likely to be spotted than in buildings with long straight hallways.
Poorly secured windows, particularly in basement apartments, are also a main entry point for thieves.

To further protect their buildings, Higgins said commonly used CPTED (Crime Prevention by Environmental Design) elements are critical such as having proper lighting, motion sensors and landscaping.

Higgins had high praise for the quality of digital surveillance camera footage for residential and commercial properties.

“If any of you are involved in setting up camera systems digital is the way to go. We still get VCR tapes that have been recorded over many times handed to us after an incident at a convenience store, but we’ve seen a lot of success with digital,” said Higgins, noting that the Toronto Transit Commission cameras download right to Toronto Police Service headquarters.

Lovell said another problem with residential buildings is that too many are still using dummy cameras. She thinks they should not be sold.

“Some companies will do anything to make a dollar,” she said.

Despite concerns about break and enter theft occurring more often within organized crime rings, Higgins said the total number of B&Es in Toronto has actually been on the decline over the last three years.

In 2007 there were 10,342 B&Es in Toronto but that number dropped to 8,613 in 2009, in large part to investigative tools such as finger printing — the No. 1 means to solving B&E — often committed by drug addicts not worried about wearing gloves. DNA and surveillance techniques are other means of solving break and enter crime.