The notion of the cat burglar is one Hollywood likes to romanticize: A suave gentleman or lady with a penchant for mischief and fondness for shiny things, thrilling us as we watch them break in and steal objects of their desire. From Cary Grant in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief, to the Californian teenagers in Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring (based on Nancy Jo Sales's depiction of the real group of teenagers burglarizing the homes of L.A. celebrities in 2009), burglars are either portrayed as sexy thieves or slapstick comedians a la the Hamburglar.
In reality, of course, burglaries are intrusive and distressing to the victims. And though burglary rates have fallen by 25 percent internationally in the last decade, they are nevertheless common. The FBI estimates that there were nearly 2 million burglaries in 2013, with 60 percent of those crimes involving forced entry. The total losses are estimated at $4.5 billion; averaging out to around $2,300 per burglary. Clearance rates for burglaries, meaning the rate at which a crime is solved, are also notably low at 13.1 percent. In the U.K., where the clearance rate is 17 percent, burglars account for two-thirds of the convicted population.
Claire Nee, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., has been studying burglary and other crime for over 20 years. Nee says that the low clearance rate means that burglars often remain active, and some will even gain expertise in the crime. As with any job, practice results in skills. "By interviewing burglars over a number of years we've discovered that their thought processes become like experts in any field, that is they learn to automatically pick up cues in the environment that signify a successful burglary without even being aware of it. We call it 'dysfunctional expertise,'" explains Nee.