About a year ago I remember reading a personal account in SurvivalBlog about a home invasion/robbery in Florida that went terribly wrong. I remember thinking it was almost surreal in the way it unfolded and thought things like that only happened in third world countries. It was an eye opening experience and something that made me rethink the way I handled myself in a place I considered to be secure by default. A few months ago my eyes were opened again when someone in one of my coworker’s neighborhood went through a similar experience. I am not trying to kid myself into believing I live in some illusion of safety. I live within 60 miles of the Texas/Mexico boarder. And because of this, home invasions have become highly sophisticated in my area. Gangs, for lack of a better word, who were loosely affiliated with cartels would use home invasions as a tool to hijack drug shipments from rivals at safe-houses and as a profitable way to kidnap “undocumented migrant workers” (illegal aliens) from smugglers. The thought was that most of these occurrences were contained to people who were doing something illegal and that civilians were immune. Most of these people would never go to the police because they themselves were breaking the law. In recent months this has changed. Apparently, with the war on drugs in Mexico reaching new levels of violence and the upcoming summer elections, these enterprising individuals have decided to expand their range of victims.
One afternoon, in a quiet neighborhood in Brownsville, Texas, four armed men pulled up to a house while most people were at work. The put on ski masks and rang the doorbell making sure to obstruct the security eyepiece enough to obfuscate their intent. A maid opened the door and the four men burst into the house. They quickly took control over the situation by restraining her and searching the house. After searching the house and collecting any valuables, (including a handgun in the nightstand) the offenders waited for the homeowner to return home. At some point, homeowner called the house to tell the maid that he would be arriving soon with groceries. The maid, while being held at gunpoint, was forced to make the homeowner feel like nothing was wrong. Once the homeowner arrived with his wife and child, they were immediately overpowered and captured upon entering the house. The offenders forced the man at gunpoint to go from room to room opening two floor safes and one gun safe while they plundered jewelry, cash and firearms. After they had gathered all the valuables, the offenders determined that they wanted more. So, at this point, three of the men held the homeowner’s family hostage while one of the men drove the homeowner to three different banks where he made large cash withdraws. The homeowner was constantly reminded that if he tried to alert a teller or signal for help that the men at the house would murder his family. They returned home with the money, tied the family to furniture in the living room, and left with the warning that if they called the law enforcement they would be back. They had explained that they had the house and the family under surveillance for weeks leading up to this event. An entire week went by before the family alerted law enforcement out of fear for their lives and now the story is slowly being made public knowledge as police search for tips and clues into the crime.
Nothing is going to fix what happened, but you can draw some lessons from it.
Lesson 1. Availability of Information
There are several things that I would like to discuss and address as possible lessons that can be taken away from this entire experience. In my occupation, I have to address many different aspects in the implantation of social engineering as a tool to both bypass and overcome security measures. The most valuable single resource that anyone has is information. What strikes me as very alarming is the amount of information that was available to the offenders in this case. They knew when to strike. They knew that there would be a valuable payload inside of the house. They knew what banks he had accounts at, when he got home, what routes he drove and how many people were in the house. They knew the names of his wife and children. They knew when the maid was going to be the only person in the house. They knew the location of the alarm pad. They even knew where the security camera DVR was located so they could collect it when they were done (we will discuss this later). The first lesson should be protecting as much of this information as possible. The amount of resources available to any member of society at their open personal disposal is just frightening. Without knowing anything about you, I could pull your property tax information from the county tax office based on your address and work backwards through a web site like Spokeo or Maltego to determine how much you make, how many people reside in your house, where you work and what you drive. Most of this can be determined just by grabbing the mail out of your mailbox one afternoon before you are even home from work.
What’s the point of this? Don’t make it easy for them. Use opt-out services to protect personal information. Buy a security-mailbox. Better yet: get a P.O. Box! Don’t disclose all your personal information on a raffle entry that Dr. Pepper and Coca Cola emailed you last week for a chance to win a free jet ski! Information security is something that takes very little effort but can make a huge difference. I am not a counter-terrorism or counter-surveillance export, but I point out a few things that make a huge difference in those who would intend to do harm to you past protecting your credit. James Wesley Rawles is always warning about OPSEC but just because you don’t disclose your phone number to the girl at the local Pizza Hut doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing 10 times as much damage by filling out a registration form online with your biographical information.
GPS scrubbing your pictures is another thing that is rarely mentioned. Many people post pictures directly to the internet (example Facebook) from their smartphones without first converting the image or at least running it through a program to remove tagged information. One of the most common law enforcement forensic practices is to lift GPS location data from pictures to give information on suspects. Criminals aren’t stupid. They are doing the same thing. While you think it might be fun to take a picture of your fully loaded gun safe and upload it to your favorite apocalyptic survival blog, please understand that there is personal information encoded in that picture from your smart phone. Might be something you might want to address.
Lesson 2. Availability of Access
I believe Mr. Rawles and others have discussed fortifying your house with large planters, thorny bushes and even cleverly concealed cement embankments. My question is why not take this one step further when it comes to your main point of entry? I am not suggesting driving 4 foot railroad ties into your front yard hidden under lawn gnomes like tank traps, but why not install a front door entry gate? A front entry gate is probably the single best investment you can make from the perspective of additional space from contact. This will give you an extra degree of separation from any random person who rings your doorbell from a trick-or-treater to a guy looking to hit you in the head with a pipe and score your wallet. You can buy one at your local Home Depot or Lowe’s and they cost less to install than a security camera system of connected intercom. This is probably one of the most important home improvements you can consider making if your Homeowners Association allows it. (Yes Mr. Rawles, I can hear you screaming “move!” as I type this)
What I also want to mention here, and I believe has been mentioned before on this site, is being aware of who you let into your house. Over the recent years, I have become increasingly suspicious of the contractors that have come into my house to do repair and construction work. While various web sites exist to do background checks on reputable companies, nothing can give a window into human intent for the individual employee. How do I know the electrician’s apprentice who comes into my house to fix a bad breaker box isn’t looking at my house as his friend’s next possible target. It still boggles me that the robbers in my example knew exactly where the security camera DVR was without searching for it. Be cautious about the individuals you allow access to your house and definitely try to conceal valuables. There is no point your wife’s jewelry collection should be left out on the dresser while the plumber is walking by to get to the master bathroom. At least restrict unsupervised access to areas of your house where a worker should not have access to. I believe this is one of the common “casing” tactics used by the operation in Florida that netted over 12 million dollars in stolen merchandise. Try to at least prevent the common mistakes and make it hard for them to do surveillance work. It might even eliminate you as a target.
Lesson 3. Predictability and Foresight
I believe I have to pay some credence to Kenneth Royce (aka. Boston T. Party) in this respect. I try not to take the same route home from work every day if possible. I try not to set myself up in a situation where I can be easily predicted, stalked, cornered, ambushed and abducted. I was in Mexico City some years back for an extended period of time and this has become standard operating procedure. I could write a whole post about the things you learn in a foreign country, but I am sure others could do it better. I am not overly paranoid and actually try to live my life fairly laid back. Kidnappings and Ransom became a way of life in Mexico. I hate to reference Hollywood, but see the movie Man on Fire and multiply it times 10. Criminal gangs do not go for the high value hard targets with ninja style SWAT team assaults. They are much happier putting in as little work as possible to grab the low hanging fruit. They are more than happy to go after middle managers and engineers (and their families) than they would be to go after plant managers and CEOs. Middle class individuals with a medium net income lack the tools and resources to protect themselves as well as a higher income individual with more to protect. Criminals do not mind, they will not starve. So for 1/10th of the risk, they will just hit 4 middle class families to reap just as much reward. Please do not think you are immune.
Have the foresight to see problems before they occur. The late Colonel Jeff Cooper always talked about levels of alertness — in a Color Code. This is not about being relaxed or being on edge, its about being conscious of your surroundings. The best advice that he gave was to know what something feels out of place and react to it. – Matt in Texas