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Tuesday, July 15, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Hold the fort

While you're away on vacation, don't forget to take precautions against a break-in


Over dinner not long ago, I noticed a friend wasn't wearing one of his prized antique wristwatches.

"We had a break-in while we weren't home," he said. "The thief cleaned out my whole collection."

"Gosh, I hope you were insured," I responded sympathetically. "Actually, I did have a policy, but forgot to renew it," he shrugged.

While crimes of violence here remain comparatively low compared to big cities in other countries, the bad news is that crimes against property have been soaring.

This is due largely to the economic turndown, plus the fact that when more crimes occur, the police become swamped with cases, causing the arrest rate to plummet. This creates a vicious cycle in which criminals remain on the streets longer and commit more crimes.

What are they taking? At one time, when people had fewer things worth stealing, crooks looked mainly for cash. Now, they go for anything that's portable -- items like laptop computers, jewelry, watches and other valuables. Licensed pawnbrokers work closely with police, but neighborhood "recycling shops" are less closely regulated. In addition to professional fences, more thieves are believed to have a network of regular customers to whom they supply their booty directly.

According to the latest figures (in 2001) from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, Setagaya Ward had the largest number of break-ins in Tokyo's 23 wards with, 2,153, followed by Suginami, 1,899; Edogawa, 1,781; Nerima, 1,697; and Adachi, 1,572. To educate the public in home security, the MPD offers an online test on its Web site. (A translation appears in the accompanying sidebar.)

The MPD says thieves' favorite point of entry is sliding glass doors, such as those that open onto a veranda or back yard. These are usually fastened with crescent-type locks that can be easily opened after first breaking the glass. Houses fenced in or surrounded by bushes or sheds, i.e., hiding places can't be easily watched by a neighbor, are especially inviting to thieves.

If you're planning a vacation trip soon, your home may be vulnerable. Burglars make a habit of striking while a house is empty; but it's probably a good idea to beef up home security anyway. Break-ins by groups of armed thieves, who rob the householder at knifepoint, have also been increasing. The July 20 issue of Yomiuri Weekly magazine noted that high-income homes were "unexpectedly at risk" from break-ins, particularly from ground floor entry. While home security systems are a deterrent, many determined crooks know that from the time an alarm is sounded it can take a private guard as long as 20 minutes to arrive, so they grab what they can within five to 10 minutes and make a hurried exit.

The murder of an entire family in Fukuoka last month shocked the nation, and lead Weekly Playboy magazine to run a story entitled "How to protect yourself from being murdered in your own home."

(One idea: set up beer bottles on the veranda and tie them together with a string that will trip an intruder, causing the bottles to topple over and generate a ruckus.)

The surging crime rate has meant a windfall for certain businesses, which have been selling and installing pick-resistant locks, reinforced windows, closed circuit cameras and sensors that sound alarms or flash lights when an intruder is detected.

If your front door's lock mechanism is of the old, easily pickable variety, you're better off replacing it with a more secure variety.

Needless to say, you shouldn't advertise your absence. Before leaving, make sure your newspaper and mail deliveries are halted. Ask a neighbor or the custodian of your apartment to periodically clean out your mailbox.

Another useful device is a timer that can be set to switch interior lights on and off at preselected times, to give the appearance that someone's at home.

It's smart to keep your bank passbooks stored separately from your cash cards. If it's not practical to obtain a robust safe, go to the bank and rent a safety deposit box (called "kashi kinko" in Japanese).

The best security of all, however, is to know your neighbors. I always tell mine how long I'll be away, and leave my contact telephone number with instructions to call me collect should any trouble arise.

A final note: annually renewable insurance coverage on home contents (fire and other damage, theft and personal liability) is quite affordable. As a rule of thumb, expect to receive about 100,000 yen in coverage for each 1,000 yen that you pay, i.e., 30,000 yen yen a year will insure a home's contents up to 3 million yen. That's a small price to pay for peace of mind.



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