By Margaret Smyka
Contributing Writer 

Police offer home safety tips at council meeting


November 9, 2010

"How to protect yourself against home invasion, identity theft, and scams" was the subject of the October 25 meeting of the South Side Community Council.

Eve Trbovich, the organization's secretary and the evening's organizer, said the topic was chosen because of the neighborhood's large commercial district. Those who visit the area are often preyed upon, as are residents.

The guest speakers were Pittsburgh Police officers: detectives Michael Pilyih and John Mihalcin, of the Burglary Squad; Detective Christopher Jordan, of the Computer Crimes Unit; and Sergeant Lavonnie Bickerstaff, of the Robbery Squad.

The other guest speaker was Alison C. Hall, executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR).

The presentations began with Det. Mihalcin, who handles business and residential burglaries, defining the difference between robbery and burglary: a robbery is when someone forcibly takes something from you; a burglary is when someone breaks in.

To dramatize how to protect ourselves, Det. Pilyih played the role of a burglar. As a burglar, he said prefers that no one is at home and no one is watching when he strikes.

"What I don't like is ‘nebby' neighbors," he said.

What burglars like is a lot of shrubbery around a house.

"It's a great place for me to hide," he said. Burglars also like it when homeowners stash extra keys outdoors.

"If you hide them around the front door, I'll find them," he said.

A burglar does not like lights or alarm systems — all of which residents should have to help keep safe.

According to Det. Mihalcin, most burglaries occur during daylight hours when no one is home. Anyone seeing someone carrying a big television down the street should call the police, he said.

Det. Jordan said cyberspace criminals first go to websites like Facebook and Monster for identity theft. Popular scams over the Internet include the Nigerian; lonely hearts; and lottery.

In the Nigerian scam, victims are swindled into believing if they wire the scammers a sum of money they will receive a significantly larger sum in return.

"Tons of people fall for this scam," said Det. Jordan.

In the lonely hearts scam, a person believing they made a love connection is asked to send money for the love interest to pay a visit.

With lottery scams, people are asked to pay processing fees before they can collect their lottery winnings — but they never receive anything.

As the scams usually occur across state lines, the federal authorities are also involved, he said.

Some prevention tips for scams include: never give any personal information over the phone to unknown or suspicious callers; no law enforcement agency will ever request a person's assistance in solving a case over the phone; never withdraw money from the bank under the advice of any stranger for any reason, but call the police and report it immediately.

In her presentation, Sgt. Bickerstaff said there have been 13 home invasions in the South Side so far in 2010. Home invaders don't usually pick a home at random, but rather have likely been there before.

Of the 13 home invasions in the South Side, there were drug-related offenses by one or more occupants in nine of the invasions. Regardless, she stressed to the audience, those whose homes are invaded are victims, and the police department will investigate the crime to the fullest extent.

The majority of home invasions occur within the first 60 to 70 seconds when people arrive home.

Home invaders often use tricks to gain entry, such as having a child knock on the door and ask for something while the adult hides on the side of the porch.

Prevention steps include: using your instincts, such as seeing someone on the street who does not belong in the neighborhood; using a peep hole; and having a game plan.

The latter refers to having assigned roles, such as "If this happens, you do this and I'll do that."

Ms. Hall began her presentation by saying PAAR has been part of the South Side since 1991. Founded as a non-profit organization in 1972, it is one of the nation's oldest rape crisis centers.

To keep safe from stranger rapes, she said to know your surroundings, and do not walk alone at 2 a.m.

According to the FBI, only 16 percent of rapes are reported. The PAAR victims range in age from 26 months to 72 years.

PAAR recently purchased four cameras in response to a rape in their alley this past summer.

"Be a good neighbor, look out, and report things," she concluded.

In the question-and-answer period at meeting's end, Det. Pilyih answered yes when he was asked if playing a radio in a home would deter a burglar.

An attendee said she receives calls from telemarketers soliciting donations for disabled veterans, the police, fire, and others. Det. Jordan said the calls may or may not be valid.

Next, a woman who was a victim of an attempted break-in a month ago said ever since the incident occurred, she is always turning on lights. Det. Pilyih said it is a normal reaction as she felt violated.

To a question about rape and alcohol, Ms. Hall said nine of every 10 rapes PAAR deals with include the involvement of alcohol.

When asked whether PAAR offers self-defense courses, she said the organization does provide the classes.

A woman said a store she owns in SouthSide Works was robbed of more than $3,000, and the police arrested the thief. Although it was the thief's 19th conviction for retail theft, the judge let her go.

"It's insane. We see a lot of that," said Det. Pilyih.

"We're frustrated, too," said he and Det. Mihalcin.


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