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What My Burglary Taught Me About Webcams
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Some visitors may have noticed that the Dave Cam image is stuck at 12:59 PM, May 9. (UPDATE: It's since been restored but the rest of this entry still counts).

That's because at exactly that time a burglar feverishly dismantled the Dave Cam operating apparatus, perhaps believing it to be part of a larger security camera presence that in actuality he never disabled.

It's a bit convoluted to explain but he then proceeded to steal another one of my old laptops and subsequently and apparently, and erroneously, took the power adapter used to power the Dave Cam. So, I have in short, been unable to start it back up even though the HP Netbook that hosts it is still with me.

The upshot is that the burglar now has a laptop computer he cannot power. In addition to stealing the wrong adapter for it, the laptop's battery died a long time ago, which is why it was left at home for his grubby hands in the first place. Without going through the trouble of fixing the battery and/or shopping around for a replacement adapter, that's one piece of equipment he will not be turning into cash. I'm happy something worthless took up space in his backpack as it likely meant less space for him to take something else.

Burglary Caught on Camera

You might wonder how I know he had a backpack. Well, in fact I did have a second camera system, and that camera system caught him perfectly.

Here he is entering my bedroom. It's like a Radio Shack in there so I'm pretty sure his heart fluttered.

By the way, you can click on this image or any of the others for a much larger version.

Picture of burglar entering bedroom.

Burglar opens bedroom door.  He's hit tech-heaven!

Picture of burglar in my bedroom.

Checking things out for the take.  Meanwhile, 
taking his picture.

You might think with these stunningly clear pictures (the latter picture is even better when it has been color corrected to dim down some of his shadow) that somehow an arrest would have been immediate. However, these many weeks later, I am still waiting to hear of any such thing. Not only is the lack of an arrest well after the fact somewhat anti-climatic, so was the actual response to the footage as it (almost) happened in realtime. In fact, all of this burgled-with-a-camera-system stuff woke me up to a few disappointing realities of the advantage that I think might be helpful to others who are thinking about setting up similar systems.

I am sure that these things can be used effectively against your burlgars, and may even be able to stop them in their tracks. But know these things first...

Respond to your Smartphone Alerts

These camera systems typically include a motion detection feature -- it's a major part of their value for guarding areas that are not subject to much "noise" movement such as in this case, my bedroom. These detections are then able to send an alert to your smartphone. But if you ignore your smartphone alerts, or don't hear them, you're doing nothing but collecting footage of the crime rather than being able to intercept it outright.

My failure to "intercept" based on a smartphone alert had more to do with my circumstances at the time rather than me ignoring them. Multiple alerts were sent to my phone as the guy was digging around my stuff, but as it happened, I was at work in a noisy section of the plant. I do have vibrations turned on but either my pants were too loose or the vibration wasn't cranked up enough, and I did not notice it while the phone was in my pocket.

I noticed the last alert only after taking out my phone for a work related matter. I knew immediately something was strange because I have two cameras. One is in our garage and can go off if the other house tenant or a cat walks through. I am never too alarmed to get an alert from it, even though it has in fact caught trespassers and bad guys clearly probing the garage to see what they might take.

However, I never get alerts from my bedroom. My particular camera system is pretty robust against shadows and sunlight movements in the room and I've gotten used to "set it and forget it", and never hearing from it. Seeing an alert then -- I had a bad feeling right from the get-go.

In fact, the first image I pulled up was one of the last images sent.

Picture of burglary aftermath.

Aftermath.  Our cat stands perplexed.

A later analysis showed that between the first and last pictures the burglar had spent 15 minutes in my space. Had I been cognizant of that very first alert, this would have most certainly been a law enforcement intercept -- and a very gratifying one at that. More on that in a moment though.

The lesson for this header is that you need to be attuned to your smartphone alerts. One major change after this event is that I specifically gave my camera system alerts a completely different notification sound from the phone's default. It's louder and it's distinct. I highly recommend the same approach in setting up your own system.

Also, in my day to day activities I am fortunate enough to have a sort of "free roaming" job role. I am not generally in a situation where I cannot respond to a phone alert as many other workers in many different work roles might. If you fall into that likely much larger bucket, you may wish to broaden the number of people who receive alerts. This takes recruitment of family members or enthusiastic other neighbors if you can do it, and maybe some drilling as to exactly what to do when an actual burglary takes place. That last part makes sense even if you are under liberal mobility rules since, as my own case highlights, even with the freedom to respond things can happen that tie you up. I simply have no one in my life who would stand the recruitment to enact this change, but maybe you do.

"Crime in Progress" Versus "Images of a Crime"

Believe it or not, the 9-1-1 dispatcher actually gave me a little push back on whether the crime was "in progress", as I announced it to be, or not, even though I mentioned "having video".

I used the phrase "I have video" very loosely which really wasn't a good idea. Understand that mixing the words "video" and "in progress" to a police dispatcher implies that one is watching the bad guy in realtime. That a crime is actually happening.

The mini-debate could have been resolved very easily by my careful parsing of what I actually had which was extremely fresh images of the burglary, not live video . Sure that's still "in progress" by most standards because it's reasonable to assume that with activity that fresh the bad guy could still be somewhere else on the property. Which was the case in this situation. This picture of him raiding our fridge shows he was in no particular hurry.

Picture of bad guy raiding the fridge in the kitchen.

Raiding the fridge after a hard day's raiding.

The police response "system" cares about this nuance because in such a case of live video they are going to call officers out on the spot, dropping whatever they might be doing at the time, to go and nab some bad-guy skin, which one imagines is a rare opportunity, particularly for burglaries.

I cut myself some slack here because as far as I knew at the time it was in realtime, even in referencing static images. In the frenzy to make that 9-1-1 call I hadn't noticed that the image I was reacting to was about 5 minutes old. When double-checked on the matter by the dispatcher, I put the phone on speaker and scrolled down to expose the other images, noting that in fact, yeah, all the pictures were actually minutes, minutes old. The dispatcher then muttered something like "okay, so not in progress" at which point I groaned.

By my timing of the events after the fact I am grateful to conclude that her remark did not seem to impact the dispatch time. The police were there within 5 minutes or so. That may have been helped by the GPS detection of my roommate being home at exactly the same time (we location share via Google) leading me to believe she may have been in trouble by the burlgar and thus a second 9-1-1 call to check her welfare. As it turned out she happened to have pulled in the driveway just as the bad guy was exiting the yard, thus explaining the GPS location. In fact, she could have been in danger but they apparently just shared eye contact as he swantered on by and down the street.

My advice on this point is to be precise about what you actually have when relaying to police based on your camera footage. Only describe "video" if in fact you are watching live video, or images, if images are in fact all that you have. At the same time, totally mention that those images are fresh images if they are, and point out the possibility the bad guy could still well be there. Assuming those are the facts of the unfolding situation that "split of hair" should satisfy any contention all the way around.

Call Police from a Different Phone

One thing that would have made that dispatch communication go much more smoothly for me would have been to make the 9-1-1 call from a different phone entirely than the same phone I was watching images from. I was around numerous landline phones and could have easily picked one up.

The advantage is that I would have been better able to reference the camera images (or, live video if I had thought to activate that feature) while still talking to the dispatcher. As it was, I had to pull the phone from my ear and attempt a clumsy (albeit successful) manuever to put the dispatcher on speaker. That was seconds lost and risked me losing the connection outright in the process.

My advice is to find a separate phone for the 9-1-1 call, or, if you can, access the camera on your work PC. Of course the latter is a little more difficult because these camera systems are more honed to work with your phone, which they assume is how you will both be alerted and interact with your system (remember my driving mantra at this blog, the WWW is dead to most of the commercial world).

It is critical to mention that you may receive a feed of your property being burgled while you are in a different city, county, or otherwise different police jurisdiction altogether. In that case, as I recently read somewhere, it is helpful to store the direct line number to your local police department if you can acquire it. 9-1-1 systems actually have conventional 7 digit telephone numbers behind them and it may be possible to ask your local 9-1-1 center what those numbers are so that you can dial direct if need be. If you are an alarm system subscriber with monitoring you can also call your alarm company to see if they have those numbers (they have to rely on the same method to call police if they monitor you out of state, so they have the numbers).

Make Sure You Know Your Camera's (and Your Level of Subscription's) Retention Policy

About two weeks after my burglary a detective called wanting to know if the pictures captured of the crime were timestamped -- they were going to try to correlate the times with yet another city based camera operating on my block to see if they could learn something from it. I had the pictures that I downloaded from my camera system but to my surprise the images were not directly time-stamped. Well, that was certainly a "flaw" of my camera system's manufacturer.

No problem though, they were stored "in the cloud" and I knew for a fact that they were stamped there as part of each image's presentation in the portal interface. However, in going to retrieve them for the umpteenth time that month I discovered that they had been deleted by the system! Abruptly, I was reminded that I didn't actually pay for their premium tier service, and, as such, they only kept my images for two weeks. Yikes!

So there are actually two issues here. Make sure your images are time stamped if it's an optional feature to toggle on (in my system, it does not appear to be), and second, realize that, time stamped or not, you need to download your footage as quickly as possible to avoid deletion by your camera service, assuming you are not paying additional monies to have them keep them longer. Even then, there is probably a time or capacity limit. Fine for most of the footage captured of nothing, but not when something actually happens.

Fortunately the detectives in this case were just looking to confirm the time so that they could research another camera's footage, not make a court case against an arrested suspect where proving his time and place might become a point of argue. I had that information well enough based on sheer memory (and, as mentioned at the start of all this, the timetamp of the last Dave Cam image).

Use Social Media....Maybe

Once you have footage of your burglary you are then free to share that media on social media. I will not offer advice here so much as I will remind that the option exists depending on your philosophy. It's not a "lesson learned" for me, as I am sure where I stood in this case.

In my case I understood two things immediately: For all the drama and potential for a more serious outcome, this was a petty-anny crime. Second, I also believed that the bad guy might still be circulating the neighborhood and thus "spottable" with my goods on him.

Both of these factors meant that, in the first place, I was not blowing some massive million-dollar police investigation that was never going to happen. If he wasn't caught in the act, and he wasn't caught down the street, this burglary was going to be just another stat on the map.

In the second place, by choosing to distribute my images on social media immediately (the Next Door social network to be precise), with the idea he might still be spottable, I was enlisting an entire fleet of neighbors who could by doing nothing more complicated than looking out their windows, spot the guy who had otherwise gotten away. Most Next Door subscribers get alerts of postings like mine on their smartphones so I was in fact bolo-ing them less than an hour after the fact. I informed dozens and dozens of eyes and ears before the responding officer was done writing up the report in his SUV.

Capture of my post to Next Door

It's true that that speed of notice did not result in a capture in this case, but I sure put the odds in my favor. I should also point out that timelieness aside, it also led to leads which I was then able to forward on to detectives. The guy had been spotted and even interacted with in the neighborhood in the days leading up to the crime.

Now, the police and actual law enforcement type people, might tell you not to immediately post to social media. And they are the experts, generally speaking. I would absolutely agree with this if the crime were more serious, had resulted in serious financial loss (it did not in this case), or where in any way shape or form the extra speedy notice to neighbors and friends online would not make a difference. In these cases, why blow the advantage of what you have on a suspect?

Still this could well wind up being a personal choice, though, barring absence of doubt, you'd probably be best doing what detectives tell you to do (or not do) with respect to your footage. In my case, I never asked, and they do not seem to have begrudged my decision one way or another.

My System

Finally, some people have inquired what system I am using inasmuch as they were extremely impressed by the image quality.

I use the Arlo By Netgear system. I forget the reasoning behind settling on them versus a more out-of-the-box solution like Ring or Nest -- Netgear is stuck in my mind as more of a networking/router company. I believe I may have just wanted apparatus compatible with my existing network system which, I think, had a Netgear piece on it somewhere. Or maybe it was just the only thing reasonable at the local Best Buy on the day of the whim I had to buy a system. I suffer from low emotional quotient, unfortunately, and still struggle to shop properly.

Still, many of the features and thus the advice based on my own experience here will apply to pretty much any system that you ultimately deploy yourself. This run at giving you my experience may just be my first pass as I have a few more things I'd love to express in follow up posts.


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What My Burglary Taught Me About Webcams
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