Help! My House Was Broken Into. What Do I Do Now?
Arriving home and discovering a break-in is unsettling and confusing. Knowing what to do if your house was broken into can make the situation feel safer and less stressful.
Q: I came home from work last week and could see from the driveway that my front door was kicked in. I ran to my neighbor’s house for help and they had me call the police, but I’m not sure that was the right thing to do. I lost a lot of valuables, and maybe I should have gone in to try to protect my home. What should you do after your house is broken into?
A: It sounds like your first instinct was the correct one. Entering a home that’s been broken into when you’re not certain that the intruder has left is unsafe, so leaving the scene and getting help was a smart call. It’s unnerving to find that someone has been in your home, but there are steps you can take in the aftermath of a break-in that can keep you and your family safe, make it easier for the police to catch the perpetrator, and help you replace your belongings and get back to feeling secure. This is what to do if your house is broken into.
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Leave the scene and call the police.
The first thing to do if you see that your home has been broken into is simple: Leave. If you’re still outside the home and see a broken door, smashed window, or jimmied garage door, do not enter the house. The robber could still be inside, and while part of you may want to go in and defend your turf, most robbers really don’t want to meet you—and panicking criminals can become violent. In addition, you don’t want to contaminate any evidence the police might be able to use. If you’ve already entered the house when you discover the break-in, leave as quickly as you can without touching anything.
There are several options. You can return to your car and call the police from there. A break-in is an emergency, so don’t be afraid to call 911. Alternatively, you can go to a neighbor’s house—this is why it’s a good idea to get to know your neighbors. You’ll probably feel on edge and panicked from the adrenaline rush, so having someone else nearby to help you call the police can be helpful, especially if you have children with you.
When you call 911 to report the break-in, calmly convey your name, phone number, and address, and let the dispatcher know if you think the break-in may still be in progress.
According to Michael Silva of Silva Consultants, “In most jurisdictions, calls of this type are given priority and an officer should arrive quickly.”
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Call the police and file a report.
While police will likely come to your home immediately to clear the scene, there will be some follow-up steps. Police will enter your home and make sure that nobody is still inside. They will then have to process the scene, taking photographs, collecting evidence, and possibly taking fingerprints. During this time you’ll have to wait somewhere else. After the police have finished their work, you’ll have to file a formal police report, describing how you left the house, what you saw when you arrived home, what you touched if you went inside, and anything immediately obvious that is missing. Filing the report might seem like an inconvenience, but you will not be able to make insurance claims for stolen items without one.
Create a list of missing belongings and take photos of the scene. Pay extra attention to anything missing from the medicine cabinet.
When you’re allowed back inside your home, you’ll need to get to work. First, take photographs of everything, regardless of whether or not it seems important. Even though the police will have photographs (and your insurance company will take even more), you should have your own records, especially as you’re more likely to notice small things that are out of place. Then begin making a list of everything that is missing or damaged. Look carefully and think hard. You can add to this list if you discover more items missing later, but it’s best to make the list as comprehensive as possible from the start.
Electronics, jewelry, and other valuables are obvious targets, but consider other items that are potentially valuable to a thief: medications. If you or a family member needs medicine that was stolen in a burglary, one of the first steps you’ll want to take is calling the prescribing doctor to get a refill. Check your medicine cabinet thoroughly.
In addition, check your files. Has the thief rifled through your bills? Are passports or old credit cards missing? Birth certificates or social security cards? The thief may have taken items that will give them access to your identity. Many people no longer use checks but still have them in a drawer—see if those have been taken. If there are children in the house, check for their identifying documents as well to protect their identities from theft.
Finally, think about what files were on any electronics that are missing. While you may be heartbroken over the loss of years of family photos, the tax returns stored on your laptop pose a bigger immediate threat in the hands of a skilled thief, and if there’s a list of your passwords stored on the computer (everyone knows there shouldn’t be, but many people still have one), you’ll need to get to work remembering and changing as many as you can.
Contact your home insurance company.
After filing a police report, your next phone call should be to your homeowners or renters insurance company. Your instinct may be to start cleaning up, securing doors, and taking stock of what is missing, but your homeowners insurance adjuster should see the damage before you start fixing it (with the exception of securing the entry point if you’ll need to leave it overnight; the police can often help with that). Starting the claim with your insurance company right away serves several purposes: Allowing the adjuster to see the damage firsthand will more clearly convey the damage to your home, but also, many insurance companies provide benefits that will cover immediate repair of doors and windows, guidance on steps to take to prevent identity theft as a result of lost documents, and a caseworker who can help guide you through the rest of the claims and recovery process. It’s good to make that connection promptly.
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Contact your bank.
Regardless of whether actual bank cards, credit cards, or checks were stolen, savvy thieves can use statements and other identifying documents to access your accounts, especially if a laptop that you’ve used to log on to your bank account has been taken. Let your bank and credit card companies know there’s been a robbery, provide them with the police report as soon as it’s available, and protect your accounts.
In addition, it would be wise to call all three credit bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian) and put a red flag on your credit reports. Depending on what state you live in, you may be able to place an immediate freeze on your credit, which will prevent any new credit accounts from being opened in your name. Some states allow the credit bureaus to charge for this service, but the charge is usually waived if a police report is available.
Locate proof of ownership for missing big-ticket items.
Your insurance company will conduct an investigation, consult the police report and your list, and provide you with a benefit summary that explains what they’ll cover, how they’ll cover it, and how much you’ll have to pay as part of your deductible. The company will base the coverage on the list you’ve provided of what is missing, so there’s a certain amount of trust they’re placing in your list. You can make it easier for the company to cover items that are expensive or recently purchased at close to replacement cost if you can provide receipts or invoices proving that you purchased each item and how much it cost. Check your files for paper copies of receipts, and check credit card statements and your email to find copies of order confirmations or shipping notices.
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Providing receipts will certainly help get the best coverage possible for obvious items like televisions and computers, but don’t overlook other big-ticket items; if you just bought a new sofa and loveseat for the living room and they were destroyed by a thief breaking a window onto them and then stepping on the glass, the receipt that identifies the purchase date and cost can be the difference between replacing the furniture with something of similar value or bargain shopping.
View footage of the break-in and talk to neighbors.
The police may help with this step, but if not, it’s time to check in with your neighbors again. They’ll probably be anxious to talk with you, because a break-in nearby means their homes are also vulnerable. Ask if anybody saw an unfamiliar car or person in the neighborhood earlier in the day (or week), and check to see if any of them have security cameras—you may be surprised to know how many neighbors have cameras that record your yard. Provide any footage you find to the police so they can use it in their investigation.
In the event that a neighbor does have footage of the actual break-in, it may be difficult for you to watch, and it may be distressing to rewatch it more than a few times. But once you know the footage is relevant, hand it over to the police.
Repair broken points of entry, such as windows and doors.
When the insurance company has cleared you to move back in, repairs to damaged entry points need to be completed before you stay in the home. Your insurance company may recommend a company to assist with this, or you can choose your own contractor. Be sure to let anyone you hire know that the job is a security repair after a break-in so they’ll prioritize your work.
As you’ll be purchasing new locks and possibly new doors or windows that were entry points for the break-in, consider upgrading the quality of the replaced items for your security and peace of mind.
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Eliminate any sign that a break-in occurred.
Eventually, you’ll need to start putting your home back together. This can be a large task, especially if the house and your belongings were extensively damaged. Homeowners insurance may cover a cleaning or restoration service in some cases. Consider asking a friend to help if you’re doing it on your own—the moral support can be very helpful. Some people like to completely revamp the home by cleaning, repainting, and freshening the rooms so that it looks like a whole new space; others simply want it to feel like home again. Regardless of what you prefer, removing the signs of the break-in can help you get back to normal sooner.
If you find any items that do not belong to you during the course of the cleanup, call the police. It’s possible the robber left something behind, and the item may be a piece of evidence.
Invest in better home security to prevent future burglaries.
It takes time to feel safe and comfortable in your home after a break-in. Children and pets can be particularly affected by the fear and disruption that comes from having your space invaded, but nobody is immune. Taking some steps to shore up your home’s security going forward can help your family feel safer.
Consider upgrading doors, locks, and deadbolts to secure the entry points to the home. Don’t forget the garage door and doors leading from the garage to the home. Build relationships with your neighbors, as the two months after your break-in are a time of increased risk for the whole neighborhood. If the thieves got a good haul from your home, it stands to reason that your neighbors’ homes may be equally rich targets, and the robbers may even try your home again, anticipating that you’ll have replaced the items they stole with new ones. The more secure all of the houses on the block are, the less attractive they are to criminals, and good neighbors can help you feel more secure as well.
Outdoor lighting can deter criminals from targeting your house, as motion sensors can alert you and your neighbors to their presence. Home security cameras or systems are also effective deterrents, and in many cases can drastically reduce the chances of a break-in occurring. Experts advise to invest in a home security system with an alarm: per the Electronic Security Association’s 2010 “Home Safety Fast Facts” report, “9 out of 10 burglars avoid homes with alarm systems and said if they did encounter an alarm, they would not attack the home.”
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