Given the recent crime figures showing that only a tiny proportion of house break-ins are ever solved, it felt somewhat reckless inviting a convicted burglar into my home.
However, forewarned is forearmed, I figured. And as someone seasoned in identifying easy ways to fleece people of their precious possessions, who better to advise me on security than one-time housebreaker Michael Fraser?
Still, when I warned my three children that they would need to tidy their bedrooms as a ‘former burglar’ would be wandering around the house, telling us how best to keep it secure, they were a little nervous.
What if he returned with his swag bag-carrying mates and, having identified all of our weak spots, nicked their beloved iPhones and computer gadgets, they asked, not unreasonably.
However, while Michael admits to breaking into countless houses in the past, he has spent several decades trying to make up for the sins of his misspent youth by advising thousands of people on how to protect their properties, approaching his work with a unique criminal’s-eye view.
As the summer holidays are just days away, and families will be leaving their homes empty to head off abroad, his advice has never been more timely.
Poacher-turned-gamekeeper-style, Michael, 57, now earns his living visiting homes and businesses offering advice on how to keep them secure from thieves.
Dressed in a nicely tailored suit, he certainly doesn’t look like a burglar. In fact, the only clue to a less than respectable past is the scar beneath his left eye from when, aged ten, a bully in the care home where he grew up smashed a glass milk bottle in his face.
His mum walked out on his father, also called Michael, and his three siblings when he was just a toddler. Tragically, his dad died in a car crash when young Michael was just four.
From then until the age of 18, he was in local authority care and, he says, it was in an effort to endear himself to the tougher boys in the home that, at the age of 14, he was first drawn into the criminal underworld.
‘I’m not making excuses for what I did, but to survive in care you either have to be physically strong or join a gang which will protect you, otherwise you end up isolated and vulnerable,’ says Michael.
‘At first they took me out with them and showed me how to kick a door in or break a window without cutting yourself.
‘Then we would steal anything valuable we found and sell it for about a quarter of what it was worth. At the time, I never thought about the harm or pain I was causing, but I’m fully aware of it now and have lived with guilt and regret for 40 years.’
His crime spree came to an end when he was 17 and was caught selling property stolen by friends during a burglary he hadn’t been involved in.
‘Burglary is a horrendous crime,’ he says. ‘I’ve spoken to many traumatised victims over the years. I see people who are really affected emotionally by it, who can’t forget what’s happened to them.
‘I wish there was a greater deterrent in law, such as harsher sentences and a higher chance of being caught and prosecuted. But that seems unlikely to change, which is one of the reasons I now try to help as many people as possible safeguard their homes.’
Indeed, latest figures show that police failed to solve a single burglary in 3,000 neighbourhoods — including those within Manchester, Leicester, Bristol, North London, Cambridge, Oxford and Canterbury — last year.
One analysis of the figures concluded that no suspect is ever identified in 70 per cent of burglaries.
And yet it was getting caught and being charged with handling stolen goods that proved to be the turning point for Michael.
Shaken by the prospect of a custodial sentence, he was determined to get a job and, ironically, ended up making door locks in a factory.
He worked so hard learning his trade that before long he had set up his own rival business in which 25 per cent of those he employed were ex-offenders who, like him, were eager to prove their worth.
Incredibly, by the age of 21, Michael was a millionaire and has starred in two TV series, Beat The Burglar and Catch A Thief, in which he advised homeowners on how to thwart attempts to break into their properties.
Now divorced and a father of five children, aged 15 to 33, Michael lives on the Isle of Wight from where he runs his security advice business.
So is my home an easy target? Michael reveals the terrifying truth . . .
FLIMSY DIY SECURITY ON GARDEN GATE
Living, as we do, in an end-of-terrace house means we’re lucky enough to have an alleyway — and, therefore, don’t have to trail garden waste and other detritus through our kitchen and hall.
The downside, unfortunately, is that it makes us more vulnerable to break-ins than neighbours with no rear access to their gardens.
Consequently, we have a security light which instantly illuminates anyone walking down the path, earning us a pat on the back from Michael.
However, while the bolt on our back gate has a good, strong padlock, the piece of wood it slides into is flimsy — a chunk of soft tree branch nailed on by my husband who, despite his PhD in philosophy, is very near the bottom of the class when it comes to DIY.
‘Anyone looking over the top of the gate would see that one good shove would easily break that wood and release the bolt,’ says Michael.
‘You need a much more solid piece of wood for it to slot into. That way, a potential thief would have to risk drawing attention to themselves, or even injury, climbing over the fence, something they are much less likely to want to do.’
GARDEN TOOLS LEFT OUT IN THE OPEN
Once in the back garden, Michael is horrified to find shovels, spades and rakes not neatly locked away in our enormous shed but propped up against the fence and walls.
Thanks to us, even the most opportunistic of burglars, who has left home without tools of his own, doesn’t need to worry as we have supplied a whole array.
‘Finding tools lying around the garden makes breaking in so much simpler, as a spade or shears can easily be used to prise open a door or window, rather than risk the noise of smashing glass,’ says Michael.
‘Plus, most criminals would avoid breaking a window or door panel, as there’s a high risk of cutting yourself and leaving behind traces of DNA, which could lead to their arrest.’
The slovenly way that TV aerial cables as well as the excess washing line hang loose down the walls also make us a target.
‘If you’re careless about such things, a burglar would question what other ways you might be slapdash and be more likely to try windows and doors in the hope they’ve been left unlocked,’ says Michael.
KITCHEN CALENDAR EVERYONE CAN SEE
Peering through the rear glass door, Michael immediately spots something that many people, like us, keep on show in this, the beating heart of the home: a calendar.
While the fridge seems the obvious place to display it, this turns out to be a huge mistake.
Although I mostly work from home, our calendar includes details of days I will be out of town on jobs, leaving the house empty, as well as when we’re all away on holiday.
‘Many seasoned burglars would check a calendar for clues as to when might be a good time to break in,’ says Michael. ‘Even if the writing is small and the calendar some distance from the window, a determined criminal could zoom in and take a photo of it on their mobile and then enlarge the image for a better view.’
So, chillingly, even a thief who wouldn’t want to risk getting caught by breaking in when someone is likely to be home might easily do the ground work and return when we’re thousands of miles away on holiday.
OUR ANCIENT, DIRTY BURGLAR ALARM
While we are diligent about setting our burglar alarm at night and whenever the house is empty during the day (the yellow Yale box on the outside wall lets would-be burglars know what they’re up against), Michael says this is nowhere near sufficient to deter determined burglars.
The alarm was installed many years ago by a local handyman and, although it’s gone off a handful of times without explanation, it seems to have served us well.
However, the outdoor box which contains the alarm is so dirty that it’s clear the alarm isn’t serviced regularly. It is, therefore, likely to malfunction regularly and consequently be ignored by neighbours.
Once inside, even if the alarm had been triggered, grubby fingerprints around the keypad numbers used to turn it off mean that a thief wouldn’t take long to figure out the code.
‘An alarm is great in that it attracts unwanted attention, providing homeowners with peace of mind. But it’s essential to get a good one and have it serviced regularly,’ says Michael.
‘Also, remember to wipe the keypad after every use: even if there’s no visible dirt, burglars can figure out a code using amagnifying glass to check for fingerprints.’
I’ve now had a state-of-the-art alarm fitted (beewisesecurity essex.co.uk), which also allows us to visibly monitor visitors to our door.
THE UNLOCKED FRONT WINDOW
Shamefully I hadn’t even noticed that the lock is missing from one of our front living room windows. They are painted shut and the wood has been the recipient of many a patch-up job over the years.
Michael points out that the lock’s absence, juxtaposed beside a matching wooden-framed window which is firmly bolted, is clearly visible to anyone walking past the house. ‘While few burglars would risk the attention they would attract breaking a window on a busy street like yours, they might try giving an unlocked wood window a push, while pretending to be cleaning or doing other work,’ he says.
Especially when one of my children has left an iPad or laptop on the glass cabinet, in full view of the street, as they so frequently do, despite my repeated pleas. People don’t have net curtains any more. Tempted though I may be to put a ‘Beware Of The Dog’ sign in the window, despite not having a pet, Michael advises against it.
‘A hardened criminal wouldn’t be put off by it,’ he says. ‘In fact they would be encouraged, assuming that, if you had a dog prowling around, you wouldn’t have an alarm set, as your pet would trigger the sensors.’
SPARE KEY LEFT BY THE FRONT DOOR
Our modern composite door — made to look like wood but designed with state-of-the-art inbuilt locks — can only be opened and closed using a key, as it has no handle.
Acutely aware of how essential it is to have a latchkey handy, meaning we can easily get out in the event of a fire, we keep one, ever-ready, on a hook by the door. While this provides an essential escape route for the family, Michael points out that it also makes it easy for a thief to get in, not least because everyone who visits, from tradesmen to grocery delivery drivers, is quickly au fait with our set-up.
‘Anyone who knows it’s there could stick a wire coat-hanger through your letterbox and use it to remove the key from the hook and just let themselves in,’ says Michael. ‘A high percentage of burglaries happen in houses where people have recently had work done, so it’s something police always ask about.
‘The tradesmen are unlikely to be responsible themselves, but may pass on information to burglars and then ensure they have an alibi at the time any break‑in happens.’ Michael’s advice is to fit a small wire cage over the letterbox on the inside, which would thwart any attempts to fish for both door and car keys left nearby.
TELLTALE OPEN BATHROOM WINDOW
Our first-floor bathroom window, the one most often left open to give it a good airing, is the likeliest entry point for a canny burglar, according to Michael.
Tucked away in the side return extension, it is hidden from sight to all but our immediate next-door neighbours. An agile thief could easily shin up the drainpipe and the opening would be wide enough for most to get through.
However, the sound of the huge array of lotions and potions unavoidably being knocked off the windowsill and into the sink would surely be loud enough to wake the dead.
Even so, says Michael: ‘The first thing any thief who got through the back gate would check is whether the bathroom window was open, as so many often are.’
Even during this heatwave, my husband and older children are now under strict orders: whoever is last to leave the house is responsible for ensuring all windows are firmly shut.
BRAGGING ON SOCIAL MEDIA
I love sharing photographs of our family holidays and weekends away on Facebook: days at the beach, dinners out and the kids splashing around in a pool.
Not to make everyone back home jealous, you understand, but it’s also a good way of recording memories, which pop up on my page as reminders in future years.
Michael, however, is appalled by these public broadcasts.
Not only am I advertising to my 200 ‘friends’ that we’re away and our house is empty, if they comment, or even just click the ‘like’ button beneath my pictures, their online ‘friends’ can also keep tabs on our whereabouts.
So, potentially, thousands of strangers are aware that our house is empty, should they fancy breaking in without the risk of being confronted.
‘I would never share my holiday snaps on social media, just as I wouldn’t get a taxi to take me to the airport, tipping off the driver, and anyone else he might know, that I’m away,’ says Michael.
‘Some burglars will specifically target those on holiday, jealous that they can’t afford one. So wait till you get back to post your photos.’