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16 Mar 2018

Do Security Systems Make Your Home Safer?

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After my sister’s house was broken into and burglarized last summer, I decided to get a home alarm. You would think that I would have had one already — buy a house and one of the first things your broker (or your mother) tells you to do is to secure the place.

Yet, only 17 percent of houses in this country have a security system, according to the National Council for Home Safety and Security, an industry trade association; and my house was not one of them.

It seems that our security habits are changing though. Now that we can shout at Alexa to dim the lights or turn on the heat, many of us are busy installing do-it-yourself security systems like Abode, SimpliSafe and LiveWatch.

Hook up enough cameras, sensors and sirens and you can monitor your home with an app on your phone or pay a professional service to do it for you, without signing an onerous contract. Traditional security companies with technicians who come out to set the whole thing up for you and then bind you to a multi-year contract are getting smart, too. In October, ADT rolled out a D.I.Y. product with Samsung called SmartThings.

By 2020, the number of people using smart security is expected to swell to over 22 million from nearly 3 million users in 2014, according to a report by NextMarket Insights, a research firm.

This newfound verve for home security comes at a time when crime is actually falling. The number of burglaries in the United States dropped by 28 percent between 2006 and 2015, according to the F.B.I. But that’s not stopping us from fortifying our homes.

“We live in about the safest time in history, as far as we know, but people are more fearful,” said Barry Glassner, a sociologist and the author of “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.”

Hear one story about a loved one’s house getting ransacked and panic sets in. That is how I ended up giving smart security a try, sampling a $299 starter kit from Abode. As the box sat unopened for a good two weeks, staring me down in its sleek packaging, I learned the first downside to D.I.Y. You have to actually do it yourself.

Once I got around to opening the box, I found the system surprisingly easy to use, with simple instructions, stick-on equipment and a nifty app. The kit includes a siren, a camera with a motion sensor, two door sensors and a key fob.

But those items only get you so far. Scroll through the Abode website, and your shopping cart can fill up quickly with more gadgets. Need more than two door or window sensors? Extras cost $25 a piece. A keypad costs $79. And it’s $19 for that yard sign that lets the neighbors (and maybe anyone with less than honorable intentions) know you’ve gone to the trouble of doing all this. Professional monitoring costs $30 a month. Add it all up, and you’ve shelled out a lot of money.

Then I started to wonder if I was the best person to gauge my home’s weak points. Did I angle the camera appropriately? What is that $59 acoustic glass-break sensor? And do I need it? Of course, there’s always YouTube for guidance. And you don’t need to buy everything at once.

“People actually do this over time,” said Christopher Carney, the chief executive of Abode Systems. The starter kit “gets them in the door and they can slowly build a larger system based on their needs.”

Doubting my expertise and lacking the motivation to do all the legwork myself, I put the pretty gadgets back in their packaging and decided to try the traditional route.

This is how I found myself, on an otherwise lazy Saturday morning, sitting at my dining room table with an ADT representative who explained, in terrifying detail, all the dangers that I faced. Someone could get into the house while we were home. What then? With the proper equipment, a bedroom could double as a safe room. An outdoor siren with a strobe light could, presumably, do something other than annoy my neighbors.

I could add these devices onto the base package, which included equipment, installation and a contract charging me around $30 a month for home monitoring. A pricier cellular plan, for around $50 a month, would let me monitor the system from my smartphone, too.

I managed to get the sales department to add a monitored water sensor and smoke alarm to the deal, so I was feeling pretty well protected — until I learned about this harrowing possibility: “You’ve got a gun to your head and the bad guy asks you to give him your password, what do you do?” the representative asked.

“Give him the password?” That was not the correct answer.

Instead, I was to give him a fake password to alert the company to a hostage situation. “The kids need to know that they can never play around with this,” he warned.

My children, wide-eyed and dumbstruck at the thought of Mommy with a gun to her head, nodded earnestly. No one would touch anything. Ever.

What kind of hellscape did this man think I was living in? I glanced out the window at my quiet, tree-lined street. A groundhog bobbed across the lawn, momentarily distracting the children. I live on the edge of a relatively safe town that borders an even safer one. I’ve never been robbed, even when I lived on not-so-quiet streets in not-so-safe neighborhoods. Do I really need all this stuff?

The National Council for Home Safety and Security says that homes without alarms are three times as likely to get burglarized — that sounds like pretty bad odds.

But Don Chon, an associate professor of justice and public safety at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama, told me that he has not found any evidence in his research that security measures like alarms, special locks, high fences or watch dogs reduce the burglary risk. He has also found that while people in wealthier neighborhoods are more likely to worry about getting burglarized, people living in poorer neighborhoods are more likely to be the victims of such crimes.

Jay Darfler, a senior vice president of emerging markets at ADT, said, “Crime overall is headed in the right direction,” referring to the drop in the burglary rate. So why spend all this money? “You cannot overvalue the sense that comes with peace of mind,” he said.

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