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Issue 482, 20 May 2002

Giving distraction their full attention

City initiatives to prevent vulnerable older people from becoming victims of burglary are being assessed by University researchers.

David Wall and Stuart Lister are measuring the impact of a pilot Home Office project targeting what are known as 'distraction' burglaries.

Dr Wall, of the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies, said: "Normally burglars don't like to engage with their victims, but there has been a worrying trend in recent years of crimes exploiting the vulnerability of elderly people.

"Typically working in pairs, one burglar distracts the victim, by pretending to do a job or give an estimate, while the other looks around the house to steal money and valuables. Also included under 'distraction burglary' are bogus property repair men and fraudsters who deceive old people into parting with their savings."

The Leeds distraction burglary project involves agencies such as Age Concern and Victim Support, community groups and West Yorkshire police. Initiatives include fitting locks and alarms in homes at risk, providing a database of bona fide tradespeople and encouraging companies who make doorstep calls to follow a strict security protocol. There is even a play being performed on the subject by elderly amateur dramatics group 'Heydays'.

There were around 16,000 recorded distraction burglaries in the UK last year, though it is thought that many more remain unreported. The effect on victims' lives can be devastating. "The people most at risk for distraction burglary often don't use banks or have insurance," said Stuart Lister. "What is stolen can have a high value – £3-4,000 on average – and victims are unable to replace those savings or possessions."

The researchers are evaluating the impact of the different initiatives. The results – to be published next year – will be used to inform government policy, and shape a nationwide campaign to combat the crime.

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