Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Home Invasion Robbery

Guide No. 70

Justin A. Heinonen and John E. Eck

The Problem of Home Invasion Robbery

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide begins by describing the problem of home invasion robbery and reviewing factors that increase its risks. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local home invasion robbery problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about these from evaluative research and police practice.
Home invasion robbery is but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to residential and violent crime. This guide is limited to addressing the particular harms created by home invasion robbery. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which requires separate analysis, include the following:

Burglary of single-family houses and apartments
Street robbery
Commercial robbery (e.g., banks, gas stations, convenience stores)
Gun violence
Stolen goods markets
Stranger assault
Crime against the elderly
Drug dealing in privately owned apartment complexes

Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org.

General Description of the Problem

This guide makes the best use of available research on home invasion robbery, but more recent studies on this crime are rare. Furthermore, of the few studies that describe the problem specifically and in close detail, many were conducted outside of the United States. Consequently, the description of the problem that follows is based on a small number of earlier U.S. and non-U.S. studies and therefore may not apply to your community.
Home invasion robbery has characteristics of both residential burglary and street robbery.1 Like residential burglars, home robbers must usually gain unlawful entry into an individual's residential dwelling (a single-family home, apartment unit, or mobile home). Like street robbers, home robbers physically confront victims in order to obtain desired items.
Yet, home invasion robbery is distinct from these crimes.2 Street robbery occurs in public or quasi-public space and victims are pedestrians, not occupants. Most residential burglars try to avoid confrontation, but home robbers seek it. Residential burglars who confront and rob unexpected occupants are not necessarily home robbers, because they did not intend to commit robbery when they entered the home.3

In general, home invasion robberies have the following five features:

  • Offender entry is forced and/or unauthorized (except in some drug-related robberies)
  • Offenders seek confrontation (i.e., the intent is to rob)
  • Confrontation occurs inside dwellings
  • Offenders use violence and/or the threat of violence
  • Offenders demand and take money and/or property4

There are several common motives for home invasion robberies. The most obvious is to steal valuable items, such as cash, drugs, or property, which can be sold for cash. Another is retaliation, such as against a rival drug dealer, gang member, or domestic partner; robbery is part of the retaliation. Another is sexual assault in which robbery is committed incidentally. In some communities, home invasion robberies are principally drug rip-offs in which the target is cash or drugs, or both, and both offenders and victims are involved in the illegal drug trade.5

Drug rip-offs

Image1: Many home invasion robberies are drug rip-offs in which the drugs or cash are the target.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock Photo No. 88232518


Estimating the number of home invasion robberies is difficult, because it is recorded in various ways (e.g., as burglary, robbery in a residence, assault, homicide).6 Nevertheless, data from different countries shed light on its prevalence and trends.

Home invasions make up a relatively small portion of all robberies. "Residential robbery" accounted for about 14 percent of all robberies in the United States in the late 1990s, but just 7 percent in Australia and about 4 percent in Canada.7 About 6 percent of "violent thefts" in 1992 in Western Australia were classified as home robberies.8 Less than one percent of robberies (armed and unarmed), burglaries, and dwelling break-and-enters in South Australia were identified as home robbery.9 "Violent or threatening behavior" was used in just 11 percent of burglaries reported in the 1998 British Crime Survey.10 About 14 percent of all robberies in the United States in 2003, and about 10 percent in Canada in 2008, occurred at a residence.11

Home invasion robbery is rare, but many robbers target homes at some point in their criminal career. In one study, about 21 percent of armed robbers reported having robbed a home, and homes ranked behind only the street, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants as the most common robbery location.12 Another study found that, after banks and pedestrians, robbers most often targeted persons at home.13

Some data suggest home invasion robberies are increasing. Incidents in the United States increased 18 percent from 1999 to 2003 (compared to a one percent increase for all other types of armed robberies).14 In Tulsa, Oklahoma, home robberies increased 29 percent from 2009 to 2010.15 In Canada, robberies at residences increased 38 percent from 1999 to 2005, but this trend has stabilized.16

Harms Caused by Home Invasion Robbery

Home invasion robbery causes a variety of harms.17 Victims lose cash and property and may also face property damage or have to pay to add or upgrade home security after the robbery. Victims also can experience sentimental loss, losing personal items like books, documents, and family heirlooms. These losses are unlikely for street or commercial robbery victims, who do not possess such items away from home.

More important, victims may suffer serious physical injury or even death. When it occurs, violence is sometimes unusually heinous. In one incident, robbers immersed an elderly victim's face in boiling water and in another they sodomized a victim to death with a broken table leg.18 This extreme violence is possible in home robbery because incidents occur in private and are therefore less visible. By contrast, street and commercial robbers attack in public and must act more quickly in order to avoid detection.

Home robbery also causes fear among the victims and the general public, especially since it occurs inside one's home where people expect privacy and safety. The fear of re-victimization is unique, because victims live day-to-day at the robbery location, unlike those robbed in public who can allay fears by avoiding risky places or the location of a prior victimization.

Factors Contributing to Home Invasion Robbery

Understanding the factors that contribute to your community's home invasion robbery problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

You should base your local analysis on the home invasion robbery analysis triangle (Figure 1). Local analysis may reveal unique situations, not on this list, that you may need to address. The home robbery triangle is a crime-specific modification of the widely used problem analysis triangle and, more specifically, the street robbery analysis triangle.ψ It organizes the basic factors that may contribute to home invasion robbery problems. Though no single factor completely accounts for a home invasion robbery problem, the interrelated dynamics among offenders, victims, locations, and timesmay help explain these incidents.

† See www.popcenter.org for a description of the Problem Analysis Triangle.

ψ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 59, Street Robbery, for further information.

Home invasion robberies occur when motivated offenders encounter suitable victims (residential occupants) in an environment and dwelling that facilitate robbery. A home invasion robbery problem emerges when victims are repeatedly attacked by offenders in the same community or neighborhood. In short, a combination of circumstances will lead to a robbery, not any single circumstance. For example, a home robber needing cash learns of and targets a senior citizen who lives alone and possesses large amounts of money and valuables. A pattern of home invasion robberies could occur if a robbery is completed easily, and proves lucrative, and offenders notice similar victims and circumstances.

General routines (e.g., special events, holidays, the beginning and end of the school day) that bring people together at certain locations and times are not emphasized on the home robbery analysis triangle because they have a less prominent role compared to other types of robberies where both offenders and victims move about in a variety of public and semipublic spaces. For home robbery, it is most important to understand how the everyday routines of occupants (e.g., leaving, returning, or spending time in the home) influence the timing of robberies and how knowledge of victims influences target selection.

Image Name

Figure1: Home Invasion Robbery Analysis Triangle

The relative importance of each side of the triangle varies, depending on the details of a home invasion robbery problem. Addressing any one element in Figure 1 might reduce a robbery problem, but addressing more than one element may be more promising for achieving a decline. The sections below describe each factor in more detail.

 

Offenders

Home invasion robbers typically are young (usually under 30), uneducated, unemployed males.19 They usually rob in groups, which sometimes are well organized and specialize in home invasions.20 Some home robbers commit nonviolent property offenses before turning to home invasion robbery and continue to commit other types of crime.21

You should identify what factors affect offender decision-making to determine the most appropriate responses. The acronym ROBS summarizes some of these factors, as discussed below.

Rehearsal: Home robbers spend considerable time planning home invasion robberies and sometimes even rehearse them.22 They prefer victims about whom they have inside information and, long before the robbery, may monitor them or talk to others who know their routines.23 In drug-related home invasions, offenders often conduct surveillance before the robbery. Some even meet with victims days before the attack to ensure that drugs and cash will be on hand during the robbery. The time spent monitoring victims varies, ranging from just 30 minutes to two weeks in one study.24 Robbers also consider neighborhood and dwelling access, security measures, disguises, and the expected rewards when planning attacks.25 Just before an attack, they may also count and locate occupants.26 Where offenders make no effort to disguise their identity, it is probable they know the victim and believe that the victim will not identify them to police.

Immediate circumstances might affect a set plan. A home robber might change targets after noticing an unexpected occupant or a new home security feature. You should consider how situational challenges make home robbery unattractive to some offenders. Operating methods. Offenders choose certain home invasion methods. These methods are not mutually exclusive and can change during the course of the robbery, depending on the circumstances. For example, a robber may use a con to get a person to open their door and then use blitz violence to complete the robbery. You should consider the combination of attack methods that offenders use in your community, some of which are described below.

Blitzes: Offenders first break into an occupied dwelling with or without force (e.g., kicking in the door versus entering through an unlocked door). Upon entry, they use violence to physically immobilize, intimidate, and control victims, and then rob them. The offenders' presence inside the home and intent to rob are immediately obvious to victims. Blitzes were common for drug-related home invasions in Madison, Wisconsin.27

Cons: Offenders use deception to mislead victims into allowing them entry into their home (e.g., posing as utility workers or police officers). The offenders' presence and intent to rob are not immediately obvious to victims. Unlike blitzes, con robberies do not require physical violence. For example, some offenders could search for and take items while another distracts the victim. They may even openly take items from victims who are unaware they are being robbed,28 although this type of crime is usually classified as distraction burglary or distraction theft.

Push-ins: Like cons, push-in robbers also rely on victims to voluntarily open the door (this makes them different from blitzes), but they then use force to push their way into the home; moreover, they make no effort to conceal the attack. In one incident, offenders made noise in a hallway until an occupant opened the door, then pushed their way into the apartment.29 Other tactics include simply knocking on the door or waiting outside until a victim opens the door to leave or return home, then forcing the victim inside.30

Surprises: Offenders enter the dwelling when occupants are away and then ambush them upon returning home.31 They may not simply burglarize the home once inside, because they do not know where cash and valuables are located. Surprise robberies may not require violence, since the sudden fear can immobilize victims. A different type of surprise attack may occur in drug-related home invasions. An occupant may invite an individual inside the dwelling to purchase drugs; the buyer then robs them.

Weapon use is common by offenders (e.g., firearms, knives, striking instruments)32 but the type of weapon varies by location. Studies of home invasion robberies in South Africa; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Madison, Wisconsin, suggest home robbers prefer firearms.33 However, in South Australia weapons were used in just half of all incidents, and firearms were used much less frequently than other weapons.34

Some home invasion robbers use or threaten extreme violence (e.g., torture, rape, murder), but it is rare and victims are usually unharmed.35 Extreme violence, however, can be instrumental to committing the robbery; for example, torturing female and/or child occupants to gain compliance from males and assistance in locating hidden items.36

Benefits: Most home robbers seek cash and believe home robbery provides quick money and a relatively low risk of being caught.37 They might spend cash on recreational items (e.g., cars, clothes, drugs, alcohol) but also basic needs (e.g., food, rent).38 Some offenders may rob solely to meet drug needs, and take nothing else.39 The vast majority of home invasion robberies in Madison were drug rip-offs in which robbers took cash and/or drugs.40

Special advantages: Home robbery offers offenders special advantages over similar crimes like residential burglary and street robbery, which have similar financial rewards. Home robbers can spend considerable time inside the home-sometimes hours41-whereas street robbers must subdue victims and take property quickly. Residential burglars also must search homes quickly to avoid detection, at the cost of greater rewards.42 Home robbers can also force occupants to identify valuables, while burglars must search for them and may overlook something.43 Burglars may also risk setting off home alarms, which may be disengaged when home robbers attack.44 Finally, home robbers can take greater hauls compared to street robbers, who can take only what pedestrians are able to carry (e.g., smaller items, smaller amounts of cash).45

Despite these advantages, home invasion robbery presents special challenges that increase the risk to offenders. Witnesses may be more effective, since offenders and victims interact for longer periods and probably under better lighting. Home robbery is a group crime, so a co-offender could "snitch." Victims also have a "home field" advantage, if offenders are not familiar with the dwelling. Offenders likely must spend time and effort during planning to mitigate these and other risks.

Victims

Both males and females can be home robbery victims: In Australia, crime reports indicate that most victims are young males, but victimization data indicate that most victims are young females.46 Home invasion victims and offenders are often strangers; still, compared to other types of robbery, they are more likely to know each other.47 For example, some home invasions stem from domestic disputes (e.g., an intoxicated boyfriend breaks into a residence to obtain personal property) or retaliation against known individuals. In some cases, the victim's home is targeted by mistake and what is intended to be a drug rip-off or a retaliation robbery results in a wholly innocent victim.48

Home robbers target victims who appear vulnerable and are believed to have money and/or desired property.49 Victims are usually alone during the robbery.50 Some home robbers target older homeowners specifically because they are perceived as less likely to resist the attack.51 However, some research finds that senior citizens are targeted for home robbery less often than are younger people.52 Still seniors are at greater risk of home invasion robbery than robbery in public.53 This is consistent with criminal opportunity perspectives: senior citizens probably spend more time at home, so the risk of robbery would be low overall, but greater in their home than in public.54
In general, victims report home robberies to the police more frequently than street robberies.55 However, there are several reasons why they might not: victims either are involved in crime, fear repeat victimization or retaliation, or distrust police.56

Young

Image2: Most home invasions are committed by groups of young men.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock Photo No: 102098071

Victim demographics bear on routine activities and risk. Finding that certain individuals have a heightened risk of home invasion robbery is helpful only as a first step: you still have to discover why. Robbers might target people who keep large amounts of cash at home and are unlikely to report to police. Or, they could target senior citizens, because they are usually home during the day and unable to defend themselves. Linking victim demographics to routines can reveal intervention points otherwise concealed by examining demographics alone, but can also help identify less-promising responses. For example, property-marking of home electronics would not reduce home robberies against those senior citizens who possess cash but not these items.

For prevention purposes, it is useful to look at victims from the offender's perspective. The acronym VICTIM summarizes six important victim factors. These factors are distinct but all relate to a common idea: offenders know something important about victims before an attack that makes them more or less attractive (probably far more than is the case for street robbery).

Vulnerable: Because home robbers confront victims for longer periods of time and try to avoid being injured, they are likely to prefer occupants who will not resist an attack.

Insecure: Home robbers evaluate target attractiveness based on the security of people in their home, about which they may not always be certain. You will need to understand why occupants appear more or less insecure, and so more or less attractive to robbers, inside the home. Home robbers must consider victims' access to weapons in the home, not just what they might carry in public. Home robbers also expect that occupants are alone, whereas street and commercial robbers can determine the number of victims in advance. A dog inside the home also makes the home a less attractive target.57

Consistent: Home robbers are likely to prefer occupants whom they can expect to be home in predictable situations (e.g., a day and time when they are alone, the neighbors are gone, and presumably no visitors are expected).
Targeted items. Occupants might possess items that cannot be taken in other forms of robbery (e.g., artwork, large electronic items, large firearms), which may also be protected in ways that would defeat burglary. Home robbers may target occupants whom they know to possess valuable items that are hidden (because they need an occupant to locate them). Offenders in drug-related home invasions in Madison usually knew the location of specific, desired items.58

Though home robbers prefer cash, they sometimes take a variety of items, such as electronics, jewelry, clothing, food, drugs, and weapons, but other times they may take just one type of item, especially drugs.59 Home robbers in an Australian sample usually took less than $500AUD worth of items (AUD are roughly equivalent to U.S. dollars).60 This makes sense, because victims with more valuable items in their home are also more likely to have stronger security to protect those items.

Intimidated: To reduce their risk of apprehension home robbers may target occupants unlikely to report the robbery. For example, victims of drug-related home invasions in Madison were reluctant to report and cooperate with the police, because they themselves were involved in the illegal drug trade and feared retaliation for "snitching."61 They may also target those more easily intimidated by threats of violence (e.g., senior citizens, children), thereby avoiding the need for actual violence.

Mindless of risk: Distracted occupants are apt to be easier to approach and overpower, especially in surprise or con robberies. Some home robbers target occupants watching television because it provides cover for the attack. Here again, senior citizens and children are attractive targets, because they are more likely to be initially trusting of strangers who approach or ask to enter the home.

Locations and Times

Home robbers prefer certain areas and dwellings, which both should be considered. For example, they may first select a particular neighborhood and then search for an attractive dwelling within it. Home robberies occur in apartments as well as houses.62 The acronym HOMES summarizes factors that influence location selection.

Home access: Some home robbers break into homes but others use unlocked or open entry points or unsuspecting victims who allow them access. The front door is a common point of entry, but back doors and windows are also used.63 Robbers may break through a door or window to gain entry but might also push through an open door after knocking or enter through an unlocked door.64 This suggests that certain target-hardening measures (e.g., stronger locks, reinforced doors) may not be effective on their own.

On guard: Like burglars, home robbers consider natural guardianship such as their visibility to neighbors, something that is critical to entering the home, and other features that could thwart detection once inside (e.g., few windows). When guardianship is high, home robbers may use cons, since being seen outside is not a concern with this method. Offenders also consider other security features that provide guardianship, like home alarms, fencing, and dogs.

Market for stolen goods: Home robbers may take noncash items solely for resale, not personal possession. They may prefer dwellings close to places that provide resale opportunities (e.g., pawn shops for consumer goods or open-air markets for drugs). This, of course, is less important for robbers who take only cash.

Escape routes: Neighborhoods with many paths in and out of them and easy access to major roads are attractive to home robbers.65 Some robbers prefer to target homes near their own, but will travel farther if the expected "take" from the robbery is high.66 In extreme cases, some gangs will travel across cities to find targets (some gang members have no permanent address and reside in motels).67

Schedules: Attack times and days may vary by the robbers' preferences.68 Some prefer evening hours, because people are home, alarms are likely off, televisions are on, and doors or windows may be unlocked or open. Others, however, may prefer early morning, when it is quiet, neighbors are sleeping, and visitors are not expected.

Home robberies may increase slightly on weekends.69 On the other hand, that they would not be more common on weekends is also consistent with criminal opportunity: dwellings must be occupied and weekend-related activities tend to take occupants away from home. There is sometimes no clear monthly pattern to home robberies.70