The Burglars Code – myth or fact?

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A Safeguarding Hub – 10-minute briefing

For many years police forces across the UK have warned the public to look out for strange markings on walls, bins, doors and pavements outside their homes. These cryptic symbols come in the form of chalk drawings, carvings and occasionally small pebbles. Many could well be mistaken for the scribble made by children who have been messing around. However, whilst they appear innocuous and harmless, the police have consistently warned that may be associated with burglary, a ‘thieves code’ left outside a home to communicate specific information about the premises between criminals. Within law enforcement they are most commonly associated with those villains that practice ‘artifice (distraction) burglaries’ against the elderly and vulnerable adults. A distraction burglary is where a burglar pretends to be from an organisation, company or public body. They gain the confidence and trust of the occupier, tricking the victim into allowing them into the premises in order to steal. More recently the notion of a burglar’s code has been dismissed by some police forces, but bear with us and read on.

What information can these symbols contain?

Leaving signs outside people’s houses has existed for hundreds of years. Whilst is has historically been associated with criminality, it was also used to signal a household where you might find the occupier willing to provide food, drink and a friendly welcome. For years the existence of these symbols was pretty much kept within police circles. However, as social networking has evolved, the police began to issue warnings on Facebook and Twitter feeds, publishing the images for public circulation.

In modern times, the inference is that they are used by burglars as a quick and easy method of leaving simple messages about a potential target. The meanings have a broad range, from signalling a property that is “too risky”, to one that may be an “easy target”. They are also used to highlight wealth, poor pickings and vulnerability. Most recently the appearance of these symbols has even been linked to the theft of high value pedigree dogs, and associated with doorstep delivery of charity bags, (obviously without the knowledge of the charitable organisations).

Follow the link to have a look at just a few examples that have been published by police forces in the past : The Burglars Code – myth or fact – Factsheet 

Myth or fact?

The use of the symbols is now disputed by some police forces who have released statements advising that there is no evidence to link these marks to any criminality. They have also been discredited in media reports and playfully dubbed the “Da Pinchi Code”. Indeed, both the BBC and The Sun newspapers have published articles giving a fairly convincing explanation for these symbols. The argument against the link to burglars contends that these are in fact, harmless road markings used by utility firms or broadband companies to indicate planned works. One or two of the articles have introduced the opinions of former burglars who have also dismissed the markings as nonsense, whilst one police force was prompted to release a guide to reassure their residents, informing them that there was nothing to worry about. With the police, media and Highway Agency all dismissing these symbols in the past 2 years, it looks like this thief’s ‘tradition’ has been well and truly consigned to history. However, a bit like ‘crop circles’, these reports of strange marks continue to emerge locally.

Safeguarding Hub view

Between us we have a fairly extensive knowledge of burglary. We have spent many hours speaking to distraught victims, visiting crime scenes and dealing with burglars. The media articles discrediting these symbols are very convincing and would leave most readers in no doubt that they are legitimate marks left by highway maintenance and other companies. However, our issue is that we have actually seen and experienced these symbols being used by criminals. This is not to say that this is a common practice between bands of thieves, for most burglars work alone. We do not want to scaremonger and we can say confidentially that the use of these symbols is very rare. But, if you are a caregiver to an elderly or vulnerable person and spot strange marks outside their home, do you really want to dismiss it out of hand without just ensuring that the symbol is legitimate?

We have seen elderly victims of distraction burglaries struggle to recover from the trauma and shame they feel for allowing themselves to be conned. A few, effectively die from a broken heart a few short weeks after having their most precious items stolen. Between us the oldest victim we ever dealt with was 101 years old and amongst the items stolen, was the wedding ring of her beloved deceased husband. At that age it is hard to recover from such an ordeal. Is it worth taking the chance of ignoring these symbols when a few simple steps might prevent the suffering that burglary brings.

Our advice for those with a responsibility for safeguarding the elderly and vulnerable is not to disregard any symbols, but instead be intrusive. Firstly, take a photo of the symbol and the location, then contact the local neighbourhood policing team for the area and tell them of your concerns. The local policing team should know whether there have been any recent burglaries in the area, who their active burglars are, whether a prolific burglar just got out of prison and which known burglars have been stopped locally. They will also be aware if there have been distraction burglaries in the locality? Artifice burglars tend to prey on one area for a few weeks before moving on. It maybe that a quick phone call by them to the local council, will bottom out whether there are planned works or whether there is an issue. Marks left by utility companies are fairly obvious, but if the mark is blatantly not something that could be linked to highway works, e.g. left on a person’s door, then wash away or remove the mark if you are able, but still inform the police.

Above all, it will be an ideal opportunity to provide the person you care for, with a reminder about home security, in particular about contact with strangers calling at the address. The following websites provide good advice around home security:

Age UK

BBC Crimewatch Roadshow

Police.UK

Thanks for reading


Safeguarding Hub

Safeguarding Hub

The Safeguarding Hub has been developed by Andy Passingham and Paul Maslin as a way of sharing information relating to safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. This website and the articles produced by Andy and Paul have been created in their own time outside of their current police roles.

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