When Nilda Berndt shows up on your front sidewalk, be prepared: She's there to burglarize your house. She's checking out your shrubbery, your outdoor lighting, all the window locks, your garage side door.
Berndt is not a real burglar, and by the time she's put you through her paces, you'll be glad she's not.
Berndt is a crime prevention officer for the Placentia Police Department. Almost every police agency in this county now hires trained specialists whose main job is to get community residents proactive about crime prevention. Voluntary home inspections--
showing you where your security is weak--are just one part of their operation.
Most spend their time speaking to community and church groups, or creating what they call citizen or business academies. In those, people appear at special weekly classes for up to 10 weeks, which sometimes include ride-alongs with patrol officers.
Stacy Margolin, president of the local chapter of the California Crime Prevention Officers Assn., says much of what its members teach may seem like common sense. "But people want to hear it, to reassure themselves that what they're doing is correct." Margolin works for the Tustin Police Department. I recently heard her speak to a community group, where she was so flooded with questions it was hard for her to get away. Crime may be down in Orange County, but it's still much on people's minds.
There's a common theme from all their teachings: Criminals are opportunists. So don't give them an opportunity to rip you off.
"Some people think nothing of leaving a laptop computer in a locked car," said Suzie Wajda, one of the county's veterans, who became a crime prevention specialist for the Huntington Beach Police Department 20 years ago. "Summertime is our big problem. People leave their wallets or purses in their parked cars so they won't lose them at the beach. They have no idea that thieves are sitting there watching their every move."
The specialists gear their information to their audiences. Sharon Reynolds of the Buena Park Police Department, for example, talks fraud and counterfeiting to business groups, date rape to teens, and personal safety to seniors.
In interviewing crime prevention specialists, I picked up lots of tips, and a few surprises.
Costa Mesa police crime prevention specialist Sue Hupp passed along a whole crime area I'd given little thought to: mailbox fraud.
In her city, she said, nearly half the residents still send mail through their carrier by putting up the little red flags on their mailboxes. Do not, she insisted, ever pay a bill using a red flag.
For mail crooks, that red flag means opportunity. And some criminals, she said, even use coat hangers with glue to extract mail from drop boxes where pickup is only once a day. Said Hupp: "You'd be amazed how easy it is for a criminal to substitute his name on a check for yours, then add a zero so you get ripped off even more than what you wrote the check for."
And the surprise: From Nilda Berndt of Placentia, regarding those home inspections she does. Lots of people not only don't use the deadbolt lock on their doors, they don't lock their homes period.
"I've had people tell me, I've lived here 20 years and no one has ever robbed us," Berndt said. "I try to tell them, 'Yeah, but it only takes once.' "