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Sheriff program helps seniors take precautions
By Alana Melanson,
UPDATED: 08/21/2014 06:53:35 AM

FITCHBURG — A Worcester County Sheriff’s Office program is teaching seniors how to protect themselves from thieves and scam artists — by learning safety tips directly from those who commit the crimes.

“Serving Time, Preventing Crime — Inmates in Their Own Words” incorporates video interviews with inmates into a seminar, presented by Sheriff’s Office community outreach workers, that is designed to open their eyes to potential weak spots in their homes and vehicles that could open them to thefts or worse. Inmates’ faces are blurred in the videos.
“These are from the inmates themselves,” said Community Outreach Coordinator Shawn McKenna, as he presented the seminar at the Fitchburg Senior Center Wednesday morning.

“This is like seeing the opposing team’s playbook.”

One inmate said a thief can slip in and out of a home in under two minutes, making off with anywhere between $1,000 and as much as $30,000 in valuables that are easy to carry and run with.

Bedrooms are often the first spot a thief will go, the inmate said, because that’s where most valuables are kept. Thieves will tear rooms apart, going for the usual hiding spots like dresser drawers and underneath mattresses, he said, recommending a bolted-down safe as the best option to prevent loss of valuables.

In the summertime, don’t forget to secure the front of your home when you’re preoccupied in the backyard, McKenna said.

“People are having barbecues, there are graduation parties — there’s a lot of stuff that goes on the back, people forget about what’s going in the front of the house, especially if you have a lot of people over,” he said. “There are cars all over the neighborhood, there are cars in the driveway, people are coming and going. It’s very easy for somebody to blend in, just step right into the house, grab something quickly and walk right out the front door, while everyone’s in the backyard having a good time.”

  “If someone comes for an unscheduled appointment, call the company first,” an inmate recommended. “It only takes one quick phone call to prevent something real bad from happening–especially if someone’s going to go to that point of coming into your house while you’re home, obviously they’re willing to do anything.”

“If you live alone, don’t advertise it,” McKenna said.

He gave the example of one woman at a seminar in another town who said she puts very large men’s work boots on her front porch, to give the impression that somebody who fits into them lives there.

“That way, anybody that walks by the house or comes to the front door, they’re going to think somebody inside has a size 16 foot,” McKenna said, drawing laughs from the seniors.

In terms of cars, trunks can give a false sense of security, he said, so it’s best to lock all of the doors.

“Pretty much every car these days has a trunk release button,” McKenna said. “If they can get into your passenger compartment, they can get into your trunk.”

Senior Kristine Reynolds said she always locks all of her car doors, but was surprised nonetheless that only locking the trunk would mean a purse or gifts inside would not be safe.

“I was also surprised that a yappy dog would not be very good protection, because they’re not afraid of them,” she said. “I always heard they were good protection because they were noisy.”

Other home tips

* Air conditioners can be an easy access point for thieves. Screwing them into the windowsill can prevent break-ins.

* A broken broomstick handle or piece of wood in the track of a sliding door or window can prevent them from being fully opened even if a lock is broken.

* Keep bushes trimmed, especially those by windows. They can be a great place for criminals to hide and break in unseen.

* Place alarm company stickers and placards in highly visible areas. Even if you don’t have an alarm system, ask a neighbor to share, or use stickers and magnets from mailers.

* Don’t leave ladders or equipment such as barrels or buckets out in plain sight. These items can be used to access unlocked windows that are higher up in the home.

* Outside sensor lights are a good idea, as long as they’re not easily reachable. If within reach, a thief can unscrew it to turn it off.

* Dogs are a deterrent, and the bigger and louder the better. Fake out thieves by putting out larger dog dishes or playing recordings of a dog barking.

* If your home is broken into while you’re there, hide and call for help. Don’t investigate because you never know what kind of weapons an intruder may have. The bathroom is the best place to hide, because items like shower and towel rods can be used as weapons if necessary.

* Don’t leave mail in your mailbox, especially checks that would have a routing number for your account.

* When cashing a check or withdrawing money at a bank, don’t walk out of the building counting your money. Count it at the teller counter.

* Carefully monitor debit and credit card transactions.

* Senior housing communities can give a false sense of security. Just because the front door to your building is locked doesn’t mean you shouldn’t lock your apartment door. Verify all visitors–don’t just let anyone in.

Car tips

* Lock all of your doors when parking somewhere.

* Don’t leave any valuables or identifying information in plain sight.

* Park close to other vehicles.

* When leaving somewhere at night, have your keys ready to enter your vehicle.

* Never feel compelled to walk right to your vehicle if something doesn’t seem right. If you’re at a store or restaurant, go back in and ask for assistance, or wait for a large group of people to leave and walk with them.

* Invest in car alarms if possible.