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Sleeping soundly on the costas

As reports of burglars using knock-out gas on sleeping homeowners abound, security steps are essential to combat crime on the coast.

Sunday Times Home Section, 26th February 2006

One morning last month, Steven Euesden and his wife, Michel, woke up to find that they had been burgled. As they slept, small but expensive items such as laptops and digital cameras had been taken from their Puerto Banus home on the Costa del Sol. The Euesdens, who awoke with sore throats and groggy heads, are convinced the burglars used gas to knock them out in their beds.

“We are light sleepers, and our dogs bark at the slightest noise,” explains Euesden, 45, from Manchester, who publishes The Euro Weekly News, a free regional English newspaper. “We didn’t hear a thing as they went through the house. They must have drugged us, which also explains why we felt so rotten in the morning.”

Stories of robbers using knock-out gas on sleeping homeowners are widespread among the expat community in Spain – although the Spanish police in Marbella vigorously reject the suggestion.

Despite the Euesdens’ experience, the statistics show that Spain is still one of the safest places in Europe for property owners. According to the seventh UN survey of crime trends for the period 1998-2000, there are only 24,000 burglaries a year in Spain, compared with 836,000 in the UK and 371,000 in France.

Even so, there do appear to be some crime “hot spots” on the Costas. John Knight, head of Knight Insurance, a broker that offers house insurance throughout Spain, sees problems concentrating around the Torrevieja area in the Costa Blanca and the Calahonda area in the Costa del Sol. “These are areas where a lot of cheaper housing has been built in a rush,” he says. “Relative poverty levels are higher, and some rough elements have moved in.”

Most burglaries are carried out by opportunists when a house is empty. “Break-ins when properties are occupied are rare,” says Knight. “Burglars want to be in and out with no fuss, so they choose their moment carefully.”

Sophisticated gangs are even rarer still, although they tend to make headlines. The cream of the criminal fraternity only work for high returns, which means focusing on moneyed urbanizaciones full of expensive properties, luxury cars, cash, jewellery and art. They don’t waste their time on the average holiday home, where a television is as good as the booty gets.

Security measures
Being burgled is a highly unpleasant experience, even if your material losses are small. But the measures you consider to protect yourself should be in proportion to the risks. According to Knight, it’s a question of getting the balance right. “For most people there’s no point in spending a fortune turning a holiday home into a fortress. Full-time residencies are nother story, as owners will be surrounded by their most valuable possessions, and won’t want to worry constantly about intruders.”

Beating the opportunists
Bear in mind that, like all opportunists, burglars like to strike when defences are down. Many people report being burgled just after arriving. They may have been seen entering the property with suitcases and bags: be on your guard at these moments.

Most burglars will case out an area before they strike, and will be discouraged in areas where they feel observed. The most effective defence against criminals is co-ordinated neighbourhood action, so get to know your neighbours and collaborate with them on common security concerns.

Doors and windows
Unlike Santa, burglars always come through the doors or windows. Well- secured entry points will discourage all but the most determined.

When you take possession of a new-build property, have all the locks changed. Copies of the keys could have fallen into the wrong hands. Changing locks can be expensive, costing as much as £700 for good-quality locks.

All properties should have a modern, reinforced security door with a multi-action lock and a solid connection to the doorframe. Ideally, all locks on windows and doors, bar the front door, should be inward- facing and fiddleproof from the outside.

Insurance companies love iron grilles on windows that are set into the wall, but these can be easy to push apart with simple tools. Roll-down, reinforced metal shutters are more effective, but expensive to install.

Companies such as Securitas Direct offer alarm systems connected to private security patrols, who rush to the property if the alarm goes off. Installation prices vary according to the size of the property. Monthly running costs start at about  25 (£17). The costs might outweigh the benefits if you have little of value in the house.

What to do if you are burgled
Ring the police at once to report the crime (known as making a denuncia). In many areas, such as the Costa del Sol, the police won’t come out unless someone has been hurt, but you will need your denuncia for insurance purposes.

If you are confronted at home by burglars, do not try and tackle them. Winston Mills, the Brit shot dead in Murcia last summer, died trying to chase a 17-year-old “punk” off his property. Let them leave with what they want. Most of the time it is just material goods that can easily be replaced, if you are well-insured.

© Mark Stucklin (Spanish Property Insight)

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