Burglars beware: Police are using 'bait houses' in this wealthy California town

A home stands on Alta Vista Drive in Atherton, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. For the fourth straight year, Atherton topped Bloomberg's Richest Places annual index. With an average household income of more than $525,000, it became the first and so far only community to top the half-million dollar mark since Bloomberg started compiling the index in 2017. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A home stands on Alta Vista Drive in Atherton. An uptick in burglaries has prompted local police to create "bait houses." (Bloomberg / Getty Images)

Next time burglars hit a house in Atherton, they may be walking into a trap and a quick trip to jail.

Faced with an uptick in residential burglaries, police in the wealthy Northern California town decided this year to try an unusual tactic: the "Bait House Program."

"We don't want to do nothing and just let it happen," said Cmdr. Daniel Larsen of the Atherton Police Department. "We want to be proactive and deter."

About 50 homeowners in the community have volunteered their homes for police department's "Bait House Program," Larsen said. As part of the program, police outfit certain valuable items in the homes with GPS devices to track the valuables and, hopefully, lead them straight to the criminals.

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The program began taking shape in February, when officers noticed a surge of burglaries in the town of about 7,000 residents, he said.

Last year, Atherton reported 17 residential burglaries during the entire year. So far this year, the city has already had 15 burglaries.

That's when one of the officers came up with the idea of a "Bait House," Larsen said.

Police selected the first home last week, and are keeping a list of homeowners that have volunteered their home to outfit belongings in the homes with GPS devices.

Once the GPS devices are added, police will receive an alert when the object is moved. That means that even if home alarm systems fail to notify police of a burglary, the movement of the objects can secretly signal police as well, he said.

Police are also using license plate-reading cameras in town in conjunction with the program, he said. Investigators can track the GPS signal and use the cameras and the real-time location of the stolen items to follow the movement of the vehicles to track the burglars and the stolen belongings wherever they go.

"If we can't apprehend at the scene, then we're just able to track the property wherever it goes," he said.

If the belongings are inadvertently moved in the home, police have a plan to contact the homeowner to avoid any confusion.

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"The last thing we want to do is show up at someone's home when they're just hanging out and redecorating," he said.

Larsen won't say how many houses are being used at a time, or where, but said investigators are trying to be selective and strategic to find a pattern for the targeted homes. Homeowners are also being told that, if their home was not selected at this time, they could be contacted later on.

No arrests have been made, yet.

Despite the name of the program, Larsen said, the homes being selected are not being made more "appealing" to burglars.

In fact, he said, he hopes that word of the program itself might be a deterrent for burglars thinking of targeting Atherton homes. It may be just a handful of homes fitted with these "GPS" traps, he said, but he hopes burglars feel like every home is a trap.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.