You’re asleep in your home one night when a racket awakens you. You think someone’s trying to break into your home – what should you do?

This scenario played out for several Aiken homeowners who were victims of nighttime burglaries in the downtown area earlier this month.

In Wagener last week, a man confronted three men who broke into his home, and days later another homeowner, armed with a gun, confronted a burglar breaking into his shed.

Arrests have been made in each of the Wagener incidents, as well as the downtown Aiken burglaries.

When it comes to reacting to a burglary, “every incident is situationally different,” said Sgt. Jake Mahoney of the Aiken Department of Public Safety.

“What may be suitable for one situation may not be possible or suitable for another,” he said. “The first thing to consider is the safety of the residents of the home. Take whatever steps are necessary to ensure their safety, whether it be to retreat to a secure area of the home, to leave the home – whatever the case may be. Contact law enforcement as soon as they’re safe. Those are your first steps.”

Have a plan

Mahoney said one thing that will help in any situation is to have a plan. “It’s prudent to at least have thought, ‘What would you do if you awoke in the middle of the night and you believed someone was in your house?’” he said. Mahoney said to discuss a plan of action with other family members in the home, keeping in mind the places people sleep and entrances to each room.

Call 911

Access to 911 is also important, and Mahoney recommended keeping a phone near your bed and having emergency numbers pre-programmed into it.

“Would we shut the door or lock the door? The kids are upstairs – how would we respond to that?” he said, naming questions people should ask themselves. “It’s better to have rehearsed the plan, or at least developed a plan ahead of time, than waiting until it happens and having to come up with one.”

Burglary vs. home invasion

Mahoney said home invasions and burglaries are separate cases that are easy to confuse.

“Sneaking into someone’s house or breaking in at night with the intent just to steal property is burglary,” he said. “A home invasion is the act of breaching an occupied dwelling for the purpose of carrying out a violent crime as a means to rob, assault, rape or murder the occupants. It’s not a legally defined offense, federally, and it differs from a simple burglary with its violent intent.”

Get a good look

If there’s an intruder in your home and you get a good look at them, as was the case in some of the recent burglaries, take note of physical descriptors like clothing, including the type and color. Also, look closely for personal characteristics such as height, weight, race, sex and facial hair.

Characteristics like scars and tattoos can help officers narrow down their search even more, Mahoney said.

“Those characteristics can help us, not only with preliminary identification but also with the prosecution of the case,” he said.

If you can see a vehicle in the area, note the make and model of the vehicle, the color and license tag.

“If there are any specific characteristics of that vehicle, whether it be body damage, owner-applied decals, window stickers, any modifications to the vehicle or aftermarket accessories, they can help narrow down the search,” Mahoney said.

You don’t have to open the door

Some burglars will knock on the door posing as a delivery person, a service technician or even a law enforcement officer, in an effort to find out if the home is occupied or to gain entry.

Mahoney said you should always check to see who’s at the door before you answer it, and that you don’t have to open the door for someone you don’t know.

“Always respond to the person so they know someone’s home. If you don’t answer, they may think, ‘OK, the house is empty. I’m gonna go on in,’” he said. “Don’t open the door to anyone you don’t know. You can respond, ‘Who is it? Who are you looking for? No, I’m not expecting a delivery.’”

If the person claims to be representing a delivery or service agency, Mahoney said you can ask for identification, and then secondary identification such as telephone number that you can use to verify someone’s status with a company.

If you still have doubts, pretend there are other people in the house by calling out someone’s name.

“Especially for females,” Mahoney said, providing examples such as, “Hold on, my husband’s coming,” or “Let me get my husband and his brother. Maybe they can answer your questions.”

Also, be suspicious of people who claim they’re having car trouble or ask to use your phone. Mahoney said you can tell them you’ll make the call for them, or offer to call the police.

You can deter criminals

To make your home less of a target, keep valuables and other items a burglar may seek out of plain view, and when new items are purchased, avoid leaving the discarded packaging in plain view outside your home.

Exterior lighting is a “tremendous” deterrent for criminals, Mahoney said.

“Criminals like being able to operate anonymously. They like the anonymity provided by darkness and shadows,” he said. “Keeping exterior lights on doesn’t always prevent crime, but it could make your home or property less attractive to criminals.”

Keeping a few lights on in common areas of your home such as the living room will also deter and perhaps even catch burglars.

“If someone does enter your home, that may enhance the probability that they can be discovered by a neighbor or a passing officer on patrol,” Mahoney said, adding that automatic timers on some electronics also acts as a deterrent by simulating activity in the home.

Mahoney said burglars often “scout” a location before committing a crime, and that residents need to be alert to suspicious people and vehicles in their neighborhoods.

If you see something suspicious, call 911.

“We’d much rather respond out there than have to receive a call later,” he said.

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.