Do Home Security Systems Guarantee Safety?

Find out the truth when it comes to keeping your family safe at home.

Aug. 15, 2007 — -- "Don't wait for something to happen to you."

That's a message that has millions of Americans signing on the dotted line with home security alarm companies that claim the only way to be safe is with a security system.

But can home alarms really guarantee you won't be burglarized?

To answer that question, "20/20" enlisted the help of two former thieves Jon Douglas Rainey and Matt Johnston, the hosts of "It Takes a Thief" on the Discovery Channel. For three seasons, the duo has shown just how lax people are when it comes to protecting their homes. But can a burglar alarm make a difference?

One study, conducted by Dr. Yochanan Shachmurove and called "The Probability of Crime Victimization," found that a quarter of the homes that were burglarized had alarms. We decided to find a volunteer family to help find out why.

As parents of three children who'd just moved into a new house, Wendy and Jay — they asked that their last name be kept private — wanted to make sure their new residence was safe. They had been burglarized years before, losing valuable jewelry and, more importantly, their sense of security.

"It's a discomforting feeling to know that someone has been in my personal space and has been touching my personal items," Wendy said.

Could Rainey bypass their new alarm system?

Testing the System

Security expert Frank Santamorena cased the property. Sophisticated thieves often work with accomplices who, like Santamorena, pose as workmen to scout out houses in advance, for security lapses. He was optimistic he would find some at Wendy and Jay's home.

"It's a brand new system," he said. "Happens all the time."

On the day of the test, the security system was on and the doors were locked. Rainey began by slipping along the back of the house. Then he picked up a rock and shattered a basement window. Despite the noise and movement, the alarm didn't sound.

Rainey climbed in through the window and made his way to the top of the basement stairs.

Because Santamorena had been there earlier, Rainey knew there was a motion sensor pointed at the landing of the main staircase that would spot an intruder as soon as he stepped into the walkway. Simple solution — Rainey jumped over the staircase banister where the staircase wall blocks the sensor. He then proceeded to the top floor and entered the master bedroom.

"Less than a minute to break in, look at the alarm system, which I could have dismantled, and then get up here past the motion sensor and be waiting for them in the bedroom," Rainey said.

Location, Location, Location

Wendy and Jay were shocked and saddened to see the break-in on videotape. Apparently, the system Wendy and Jay bought was inadequate. It cost them $700, with monthly monitoring charges of $30. Home security systems work by automatically notifying the alarm company's call center employees, who then notify the homeowner and then the police.

Critics of the security industry say companies often sell insufficient systems at a discount because the real money is made from those monthly monitoring charges.

David Cohen is the CEO of Standard Security, the company that installed Wendy and Jay's system. Cohen said that a motion detector would have stopped the break-in if it had been placed in the basement and strategically in that main hallway. Why didn't his company install it in that location?

"Well, we don't make the final decision as to where something goes," Cohen said.

Indeed, Wendy admits that she made the decisions.

"I pretty much said, this is what I want. It would have been helpful for them to maybe encourage me to purchase more equipment," she said.

The bottom line, according to Johnston, the "It Takes a Thief" star: Home alarms won't work if they are not installed properly. He also noted that many people don't turn them on.

"You have to use them and you have to test them," Johnston said.

Standard Security upgraded Wendy and Jay's home with a better system. While home alarms don't guarantee security because determined thieves can't be thwarted, they can help. In fact, just having those lawn signs can make a difference. The burglar will keep looking, but at your neighbor's house.

Beware of Dog?

What if you don't have a home alarm, but you have a dog? Many people believe that because Fido sometimes barks at strangers, he will protect you against burglars. The truth is that burglars have been known to steal, kill or befriend the household guard dog.

The myth persists that dogs are good for home security. Rainey and Johnston have broken into homes with dogs on "It Takes a Thief."

"A lot of people get those yappy dogs," said Johnston. "When dogs are yapping all the time, neighbors tend to tune them out."

Of course, there are many breeds that are going to be dangerous for burglars, but "a few of those dogs may be dangerous for your family as well," Johnston said.

So, are dogs a problem for thieves?

Rainey says dogs present a problem "only when they're in my way. You know, they're following me around with their tail wagging. They're breaking more stuff than me."

A dog may be man's best friend, but he's not your best security system.