Rooftop Break-Ins on the Rise

It could have been a scene out of Ocean’s Eleven. The evening of Feb. 5, a band of thieves broke through the roof of Karat 22 Jewelers in Houston and made off with jewelry worth “multiples of seven figures,” according to owner Aku Patel. Police and industry experts were stunned by the swiftness and efficiency of the crime. “When the burglars cut through the hole in the roof, they disabled primary and secondary alarms within 35 seconds,” Patel says. “They then broke into the control room and pulled out the exact chip that disables the entire security system.”

What’s notable isn’t only the value of the stolen ­jewelry, but also the speed and competence with which the thieves defeated the alarms. They disabled 32 security cameras in less than six minutes, destroyed the phone system, and cut Internet cables, giving police less than five minutes of break-in footage without a single burglar caught on tape. This gave the crew nearly two hours to break into a Class 1 vault, says Patel.

The heist made clear that a new breed of thieves is targeting the jewelry business. The common thread among the latest sophisticated break-ins? Burglars going through the roof.

“We started noticing that burglars were breaking in through rooftops, and even adjacent empty stores, then quickly compromising alarms—either tripping them frequently or disabling the systems altogether,” says Gary Wasserman, president of International ­Jewelers Block & Fine Arts Insurance Services. “This gives burglars all the time needed to break into a safe, a trend we noticed in 2010. In the early part of 2011, there have already been a few vault break-ins of significant value.” 

Jewelers Mutual responded to the rooftop break-in trend in February, issuing a special consumer report on the vulnerabilities of store rooftops, especially those not armed with cameras and/or motion sensors. It also noted a rise in rooftop break-ins in the southern United States.

“The skills to break into a vault are very specialized,” Wasserman says. ­“Jewelers can’t access a vault without a combination, key, or both, [but] there are professionals who can.”

If that weren’t disconcerting enough, consider these security system backup issues. As multiplex and two-way radio systems are phased out and replaced with Internet backups, “there have been failures of the [Internet] systems associated with these rooftop break-ins,” says Wasser­man. “The back-up systems rely on phone and Internet lines, which are usually defeated shortly after the actual break-in.” Another backup uses cell phone technology, but burglars can use network signal blockers to jam the connection.

At press time, Patel was open by appointment only. He and his family continue to work with local investigators as well as their security contractors. Like many jewelers, Patel is looking to make his store even more secure, but he faces considerable challenges. 

“If a burglar has the skills, tools, and determination, he’s going to get into your safe or vault,” Wasserman says. “The best a store owner can do is have a state-of-the-art security system, perform periodic system checks, and stay current on new technologies.”

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