Despite being a writer, I’m not a natural over-sharer. The words flow freely enough when I’m talking about design, but I’m much more guarded in my own life. But I realized that most advice is inherently personal and comes from experience, so once I overcame the icky feeling, I knew it was time to write about being robbed. Becoming a statistic isn’t so bad, I figure, if I can help someone else avoid it.
I live on the Upper East Side in a rear-facing apartment on the second floor in a walk-up on a quiet stretch of a major avenue. We chose the place because it was cheap—my previously long-distance boyfriend had no job lined up when he moved here to be with me, so no broker’s fee for us! It seemed super safe to us—on the weekends it’s strollers galore and older folk milling about or stoop-sitting.
Shortly after we moved in, we did see a news crew filming a story about area break-ins, but we didn’t think much about it: We thought they were just sensationalizing a robbery or two. It’s New York City, after all.
In fact, we lived there without any incident for a year. But in August, our landlord told us that a business two doors down was building an extension onto the back of their building and that the new roof would be right beneath our bedroom window. Brilliant—construction to deal with! We knew it would be an inconvenience, but we didn’t think it’d be compromising our safety.
The construction didn’t really bother us. There was dust, but we used an air purifier. And since we were both working 9-to-5’s, we didn’t even hear the noise. The problem was that our kitchen, living room, and bedroom windows—previously a 30-foot drop to the ground—were now accessible to anyone comfortable walking on a roof and climbing up a step ladder. Knowing that we would be the first apartment you’d encounter from the fire escape, we put a nail in the corner of our bedroom window and installed metal slide locks from Home Depot on all the windows. Sure, it made opening our windows a total pain, but not as much of a pain as getting robbed would be. Fortunately, we were also starting to dabble in smart home technology at the time—I had even been given an app-enabled security camera for a potential story.
Despite our preparation, come one September day, we got robbed. Two men gained entry into the vacant site, climbed up onto the new roof extension, and eventually broke into our apartment. They first tried to go through the bedroom—but turns out our low-tech moves created a roadblock for the break-and-enterers. They couldn’t open our bedroom window because of the nail, but they used a jimmy to pop the regular window lock in our kitchen. The lankiest robber wriggled himself through the 8-inch opening (which was much smaller than usual because of the slide lock installation) and opened the fire escape window for his friend. This gave the perpetrators less time to explore in the apartment and they got away with fewer valuables, but they were able to get in.
Right away, my boyfriend got a notification on his app and he watched the robbery in real time. He immediately called the police and hopped into a cab from work, continuing to watch a live stream of the burglars swiping things—tickets to resell, some jewelry, anything that looked somewhat valuable. Oddly enough, an employee we knew at the business beneath our apartment heard the commotion and yelled up, which was audible on the film. The crooks split, and just like that, the invasion was over.
Once we arrived at the scene (the cops beat us, FYI, so don’t discount the NYPD’s speed), we played the break-in video on our big flatscreen, and their minds were blown. The footage, while creepy, provided decent images of the burglars’ appearances and a frame-by-frame account of the break-in. The cops never found the crooks (or our stuff), but had they, it’d be an open and shut case because of the video.
Watching people walk around in my home while I wasn’t there and touch, or worse, take my things made my stomach drop. It’s so surreal, and you can’t unsee it. I immediately felt unsafe but at the same time relieved that we hadn’t been home, that it hadn’t been worse. Then came the pity, shock and awe from everyone else.
Honestly, a home invasion can happen anywhere, anytime. Anyone who heard about the break-in immediately asked, “So you’re moving, right?” And part of me wanted to. But the truth is: I’ll do just about anything to avoid moving in New York because it’s expensive, and it sucks. So we settled for metal bars on the windows that didn’t have them.
And from what the cops told us, the odds are now in our favor. Generally, the kind of criminals that rob are looking for a quick hit—to get in and out as fast as possible and be up a couple of bucks. They rarely hit the same place twice. It’s far too risky to return to the scene of the crime, which is something I had worried about. And perhaps most interestingly, the detective told us most of the time, 20 dollars is enough to satisfy a small-time crook. He suggested, in addition to hiding valuables, leaving a stray bill out on a table or dresser. Often, the intruder will just pocket the money, and move on to the next one. It’s a strategy that actually works—one I’m happy to say we haven’t had tested, but that decoy bill will forever be on our entry table.
Besides keeping a decoy bill out, I have four tips I learned and would recommend for those looking to prevent a break-in at all stages at the moving process:
- Avoid moving into a building where construction is currently taking place next to or below you. This is hard to anticipate, of course, since buildings go up and get torn down all the time without warning. But active construction close by should certainly be a con when house hunting. Also stay away from vacant buildings, because these often become teardowns. If construction begins near your place once you move in, work with your landlord to get bars on the accessible windows.
- Install locks on the windows. Though these didn’t prevent my apartment from getting robbed, it did help at least a little bit. If the robber had been bigger (and unable to wiggle through the kitchen window), they would have passed over our apartment.
- Invest in a security camera. It’s not like the cameras are going to stop crime. They just make it easier to pick up the pieces or make sense of things, particularly for a police report which you’ll want to file for any chance of property recovery.
- Befriend your neighbors! Humans are sometimes the best line of defense in theft prevention.