Suspected members of a highly-organized burglary ring were arrested in Miami, Florida last month for allegedly using social media and other surveillance techniques to target homeowners in upscale neighborhoods and steal millions of dollars’ worth of jewelry and cash.
On February 18, 10 suspects were charged with racketeering, conspiracy and burglary, putting an end to an alleged two-year crime spree that included the theft of $1.7 million in jewelry from a celebrity jeweler and a plot to burglarize the home of New York Yankees pitcher Aroldis Chapman.
The suspects allegedly stalked their intended victims on Instagram, watched homes for weeks and installed GPS trackers on targets’ vehicles to monitor their whereabouts. Police used the suspects’ own methods to identify and capture them, analyzing social media posts that featured images of the stolen goods and the alleged thieves themselves. Another burglary gang arrested in Houston last year allegedly used social media to stake out upscale neighborhoods and locate homes with high-end artwork.
“It is just a sad reality,” said Wendy McCormack, Senior Underwriter, Burns & Wilcox, Toronto, Ontario. “With social media, you can find out a great deal about an individual. Criminals are researching your alarm systems, houses, incomes—everything. Burglary is devastating for victims on a personal level because their home has been invaded; the consequences are emotional as well as financial.”
Social media is just one tool that burglars exploit to target high-end homes or “case” a neighborhood, and it is an all too common occurrence. Burglaries accounted for $3.4 billion in U.S. property losses in 2017, underscoring the need for High-Value Homeowners Insurance and, in some cases, Personal Articles Floater and Private Client coverage.
When Billy Joel’s $33 million Centre Island, New York estate was burglarized in late January, the singer-songwriter’s garage door and home office were damaged and 12 of the motorcycles in his collection were vandalized. In mid-February, two homes in an Atlanta, Georgia gated community were ransacked and robbed within two days of each other; the alleged thieves stole $9,000 in cash and a $3,000 necklace from the first home and $6,000 in jewelry from the second.
“The homeowners targeted in these types of burglaries need the same types of Homeowners and Dwelling Insurance as other homeowners; however, they may need policies with limits that cover losses at a higher value level,” said Heather Posner, Associate Vice President, Director, Private Client Practice Leader, Burns & Wilcox, Cleveland, Ohio. “It is our job to help homeowners not just have insurance, but avoid losses entirely by advising them on appropriate security measures.”
Individuals are more exposed than ever before
The more we share online about our private lives, the greater our risk of being victimized. Criminals’ use of social media has been on the rise for years; one survey conducted nearly a decade ago found 80 percent of burglars checked Facebook, Twitter, Four Square and Google Street View prior to committing crimes.
“We are more visible online now than ever before,” said David Derigiotis, a Certified Information Privacy Professional, Corporate Senior Vice President, National Professional Liability Practice Leader, Burns & Wilcox, Detroit/Farmington Hills, Michigan. “The multitude of social media platforms provide a significant amount of data for the outside world to observe and collect. Take your pick—education and work history, hobbies, interests, family connections, and current location are all data we willingly give away. As witnessed in these recent burglaries, more people may be watching what you post than you may realize.”
Features built into cellphones and mobile apps can make it possible for would-be criminals to view your location in real time and gather metadata from photos you have posted, Derigiotis pointed out. “Privacy is a marathon, not a sprint. If we are proactive in our approach and understand where and how we are vulnerable, steps can be taken to achieve greater online privacy which can translate to greater physical security.”
The connection between social media and burglary is not on the radar of many homeowners. Posting updates on our everyday lives, including posts that include images of our valuable possessions or reveal our daily routines, making it possible to predict when we are least likely to be home, has become commonplace, especially among teens. Our inattention to our surroundings while using technology can also make us more vulnerable to those who wish to do us harm.
“We often have a false feeling of security. We can get so absorbed in using technology we might not realize we are being watched or tracked,” Posner said. “If social media continues to be as open as it is, there will be more opportunities for victimization. If not utilized correctly by all members of a household, social media potentially creates opportunity for burglars and other criminals.”
Many homes and collections carry high values, risk
Despite the high-profile nature of some burglaries, most victims are not professional athletes or celebrities. In the U.S., more than 3 million homes were worth at least $1 million in 2018, an increase of 3.1 percent from 2017. In addition, just over 6 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds in the U.S. owned a second home in 2018; many second homes are vacant for part or even most of the year, making them especially vulnerable to break-ins. In 2016, 9 in 10 houses in Vancouver, British Columbia were worth more than $1 million.
According to a 2019 year-end report by Sotheby’s International Realty Canada, the performance of the country’s “top-tier” housing market—homes priced $1 million and above—was mostly strong last year. In the Greater Toronto, Ontario Area, sales were up 23 percent from 2018; in the second half of 2019 sales were up 37 percent in Vancouver. In Montreal, Quebec sales of homes worth $4 million or more increased 64 percent, while in Calgary, Alberta top-tier home sales fell 13 percent.
As home values rise, so does the need for specialized High-Value Homeowners Insurance—especially since about 60 percent of all U.S. homes are estimated to be underinsured by an average 20 percent, according to Consumer Reports.
“As homeowners grow their wealth, they may outgrow their insurance program without realizing they need a high-value carrier,” Posner explained. Once a home has a reconstruction cost of around $1 million or higher, a High-Value Homeowners policy is usually needed, she said.
“When a home gets to that value of reconstruction cost, there is usually some specialty construction that has gone into it and potentially some unique materials that a mass market carrier may not cover in the same way,” she added.
Individuals with luxury jewelry or fine art collections or other big-ticket items should find out whether these items are adequately covered by their Homeowners Insurance policy. Many exceed the limit and require Personal Articles Floater coverage or a Collections Insurance policy, McCormack said.
As homeowners grow their wealth, they may outgrow their insurance program without realizing they need a high-value carrier.
Appropriate insurance coverage is a key consideration when high-value items are at stake. In Tampa Bay, Florida, six suspects were arrested January 28 in connection with two dozen burglaries. Police said the suspects disguised themselves as construction and other trades workers to seek out big-ticket items. The suspects allegedly stole more than $1 million from homeowners, including $900,000 worth of valuable collectibles such as artwork by Salvador Dalí and John Lennon and song lyrics handwritten by Jimi Hendrix.
“The damage from breaking into the home can be fixed by insurance, but the items stolen may be priceless in terms of sentimental value,” McCormack noted, emphasizing the importance of prevention strategies. “You need to plan and have adequate coverage so that you do not have a shortfall in the event of a loss.”
Important precautions to limit vulnerability, mitigate losses
Taking regular assessments of home security exposures should include making sure safes are bolted to the floor, security systems are functioning properly and everyone in the home is following safe social media practices, Posner advised. In some cases victims of burglaries have had a high-tech security system installed but were not using it regularly due to unresolved technical issues or perceived inconvenience, Posner said.
“Having a security system is a deterrent, but having it on is much more important,” she said. “We all want convenience in our lives, but convenience can leave us open to being taken advantage of. It is critical for homeowners to take enough time to learn how to best use the security systems they have and conduct audits of their security.”
High-value jewelry should be kept in a safe, or even an offsite safety deposit box if not worn regularly, McCormack added. She also stressed the importance of communicating with your insurance broker or agent when your coverage needs may change or have already changed.
“Always keep your insurance broker or agent up to date and make sure that you have sufficient coverage. Keep letting them know as you purchase new items,” she emphasized.
Derigiotis underscored the fundamental importance of smart risk management, given that today’s technology makes it so easy for criminals to target multiple victims from a remote location.
“We can utilize and enjoy technology, but we have to know how to use it in a smart and savvy way that affords us as much protection as possible,” he said. “It is always a good idea to sit down with a specialist who understands high-value personal insurance so you can evaluate your needs and make sure you are well protected in the event something does happen.”