Security at Home: The Basics

One-hundred-seventy-eight of every 1000 households will be a victim of some sort of property crime and 32 homes of every 1000 will be burglarized this year

Your Home Is Your Castle

Personal security at home means more than just taking steps to keep your house safe from break-ins. It means planning for a full range of protection for you and your loved ones in a way that allows you to go about your normal lives, free from fear and anxiety.

Break-ins are just the start of your home security considerations. In this section, we’ll discuss burglary and home invasion, the two most common intruder crimes. But also we’ll look at domestic violence and fraud, two other common security considerations in the home. We’ll look at electronic security alarm systems from a design point of view. I won’t go into great detail about what hardware to buy or how to wire it up. Rather, I’ll help you determine how much, or how Little, alarm system gadgetry you need to adequately secure your home within your budgetary concerns, and discuss the most popular options for security systems. The Home Security Assessment will take you step by step through your home to find its security strengths and weaknesses, information you need to make your home security plan.

You learned in the last section how to be alert and aware on the streets—now bring that increased awareness home.

Don’t Be Intruder-Friendly

There is a tremendous feeling of personal violation and loss of security when someone breaks into your home. If you can’t feel safe in your own home, where can you? The truth is, most burglars go into homes because they’ve been invited. Yes, you read that right: Homeowners regularly invite burglars to come right on in! How? By unconsciously giving them opportunity.

Some ways people regularly invite burglars into their homes:

• Leaving windows and doors unlocked when not home.

• Not arming security systems.

• Leaving garage and basement doors unlocked.

• Leaving windows open all night.

• Not making a home look occupied when they’re on vacation.

In the Home Security Assessment to follow, you’ll learn how to counteract these and other security risks.

What else makes a home inviting to intruders?

According to a study at Temple University in Philadelphia, three or more of the following things make a home a good target:

• It’s located within three blocks of a major thoroughfare.

• It’s on a cul-de-sac.

• It’s situated adjacent to a wooded area, abandoned railroad tracks, or park.

• It’s somewhat more expensive than others in the neighbor hood.

• The home’s occupants are newcomers to the neighborhood within the past year.

To have a plan for security at home, you first need to look carefully and honestly at how secure—or insecure—your home is currently. Many people think that having good strong locks on all the doors and windows is enough for security. Well, here’s an interesting thing about locks: You do have to use them in order for them to work. This is no joke: In nearly half of burglaries in which the thief entered through a door or window, he got in through an unlocked door or window.

Many burglars I’ve arrested told me they usually spend less than a minute sizing up a potential target before deciding whether to break in or move on. Obvious deterrents such as an electronic security alarm system can cause them to go else where (more on that later). Interestingly, some said certain visible, flamboyant security measures, such as huge padlocks, sometimes had the opposite effect of a deterrent. It raised the crooks’ curiosity about what was so valuable that it required such extreme measures, and sometimes offered a challenge they couldn’t pass up.

Even if you have good locks and use them, you need to know some important things I learned while investigating burglary cases:

• Most burglars enter a home through the front door. Whether they pick the lock, kick in the door, or simply turn the handle and push, the majority of thieves enter your home through exactly the same entry you do.

• The vast majority of windows can be easily broken. Break the lock or break the glass—it doesn’t matter. The end result is that the thief gets in.

• Where there’s a will, there’s a way for a burglar to get in. Locks are only the first line of defense. A motivated, persistent criminal will quickly move to other means of gaining entrance, and homes with few security measures will, open up to a clever crook rather quickly.

• Most stolen property is never recovered, and much of what is recovered can’t be returned to its owner because proper steps weren’t taken to identify the items.

The good news is that homes with well-thought-out security measures as part of an overall security plan can create enough obstacles for burglars that they’ll take their business elsewhere, deflected to other, less-prepared homeowners. This is where the Home Security Assessment comes in—whether you live in a single family home, a condo, or an apartment. In the years I investigated burglaries, I saw everything from the simplest entries -- via unlocked doors and windows -- to some outlandish, highly creative ways of breaking into a home. This assessment will help you prepare for even the most obscure methods I’ve seen of gaining entry.

Read through the series of questions and think about how they apply to your own home. Each question is followed by information and advice on making a particular aspect of your home more secure.

Quiz: Home Security Assessment

1. How easy would it be to kick your doors in, pry them open, or smash them?

It’s easiest to gain entry through a wooden door (with the exception of heavy hardwood doors like oak). Some hollow wooden doors can be chipped at and deformed to allow locks to be removed, or crowbars to be inserted between the door and frame to pry the door open. A little-used but highly effective way to get past a wooden door is to use a small battery-powered saw to literally slice the door in half horizontally below the lock. The end result is like a Dutch door, and the thief simply swings the bottom half of the door open. This technique defeats most alarm systems, too, since the magnetic contact is generally located on the top of the door.

The best doors are metal, or made of solid-core material that’s difficult to smash through, even with a sledgehammer or an ax. While a burglar could theoretically use the “saw it in half” method on a metal door, the amount of noise and effort involved pretty much ensures he wouldn’t bother trying.

2. How good are your locks, hinges, and other hardware?

If you don’t have a deadbolt lock, get one. Handle-locks (key on the outside, push-button or turn-button on the inside) can be broken fairly easily with a good twist from a pipe wrench. Your Lock’s bolt should travel at least two inches into the door frame. A Lock that’s flush-mounted on the door is preferred to one that protrudes, which can be struck with a sledgehammer or pried off. When installing deadbolt locks, don’t forget the door from your garage into the house. This is a common security weakness in many homes. Too many people rely on a handle Lock on this important door.

When you engage a deadbolt lock, you turn the handle and the bolt moves into the wall through a metal plate called a strike plate. The strike plate is mounted on the door frame, often on a piece of molding. The problem is that the screws used to mount the strike plate are often so short that they barely pass through the molding. Kicking the door will simply tear this molding away from the wall and defeat the lock. The most secure door uses an oversized strike plate mounted with three-inch screws that penetrate through the molding and deeply into the door frame.

You can secure sliding glass doors with special locks avail able at home improvement stores. A homemade method that works is to simply put a broomstick or a dowel cut to the proper length in the inside track to keep the door from being opened. A major sliding door security weakness is that they can be lifted off their tracks to gain entry. You can foil this by drilling a hole through the top or bottom track and into the door, then inserting a metal pin in the hole.

It’s often recommended that you install double-cylinder deadbolt locks—the kind that require a key to open them from the inside as well as the outside. These locks are the subject of a lot of controversy because they may pose a hazard by creating a barrier to escape in case of fire or other emergency. I don’t recommend using this type of lock, because to overcome the hazard, you need to leave a key in the inside lock at all times when you’re home. This isn’t always practical or easy to do if there are a number of people in your household. It’s too easy for someone to take the key out and misplace it. If you live alone, it’s easier to keep a key in the lock and not lose it.

Doors should be mounted so the hinges aren’t exposed on the outside. Otherwise, someone can simply knock the bolts out of the hinge and take the door off. If your door is mounted in this way, either remount the door with the hinges on the inside, or try this fix to prevent your door from being removed from the hinges:

• Remove an opposing screw from each hinge leaf.

• Screw a long bolt into the door frame side of the hinge. Leave it protruding at least half an inch. Saw off the bolt head.

• Drill out the opposite hole so the bolt goes into it when the door is closed. Do this to the top and bottom hinge plates. Even if the hinge pins are removed, the door will stay firmly in place. It’s really not a bad idea to do this to any door, no matter where the hinges are located.

3. Do any of your doors contain glass panels?

If you have glass panels in doors, French doors, or sliding glass doors, they are nearly impossible to secure. Safety glass and some protective glass films can offer reinforcement by preventing shattering, but they can still, be penetrated. When installing Locks on doors with glass panels in them, the rule of thumb is to keep the locks at least two feet away from the glass, thus making it harder for someone to reach in through a broken pane and unlock the door.

ba-54.jpg Inserting a larger bolt into a hinge and sawing off its head will prevent an intruder from removing the door.

4. Are windows secured by locks, security glass, stop pins, or other hardware?

White locks and other hardware won’t prevent a determined burglar from breaking your window glass, they can erect enough of a roadblock to help deflect a criminal from your home to another. At the very least, sturdy locks can alert you to an attempted break-in while you’re at home. There are downsides to some of these hardware items, however.

• Stop pins prevent your window from being opened more than a few inches, which may slow you down if you ever need to use your windows to escape your home during an emergency.

• Security glass and reinforcing films such as storm glazing will slow down a less persistent intruder, but are costly.

• Locks can be defeated either by breaking them or bypassing them and breaking the glass instead.

Of course, I still recommend installing strong locks. But the best overall security method for windows is an alarm system.

When assessing your windows, don’t forget basement and attic openings. Pay attention to bathroom windows as well. Though they’re small, they can still provide opportunity to thieves. I worked a case in which a father pulled off burglaries with his seven-year-old son. Dad boosted the kid into the house through a bathroom window. Little Junior was trained to grab jewelry, watches, cash, guns, cameras—anything he could easily pick up and pass through the small window to his waiting dad. The loot was stashed in a backpack, and after the heist, the two strolled away from the job hand in hand, the least likely pair of criminals you could ever conceive. They made several good hauls without ever going through a larger window or door.

5. Are your windows protected with metal grates or burglar bars?

These are the two best ways to physically protect windows. Both methods, however, are barriers to escape in an emergency, so consider their use carefully. Another effective method that doubles as storm protection is to install rolling aluminum shutters controlled from the inside of the home.

These three ways to protect windows aren’t for everybody, though—they’re considered extreme by most people, and they certainly don’t do much for the looks of your home.

6. Where might a burglar or assailant hide outside your home?

Burglary is a crime of stealth—its perpetrators depend on not being seen to commit their crime. If you’re not careful criminals can find many places to lurk on your property. Consider trimming tall bushes and trees near your front door or windows to eliminate possible hiding spots and potential access to your upper floors. Light up dark areas and entryways, making sure to mount lights high enough to avoid tampering. I especially tike motion sensors on lights, for two reasons: They alert you to any motion outside, and the prowler can’t know if you’ve been alerted to his presence and turned on the light yourself.

Don’t forget to lock any backyard storage sheds, cellar doors, and garage doors when not in use. Burglars can use such areas to place you under surveillance, learn your habits, and plan their crimes more thoroughly.

7. Can anything outside the home be used by an intruder to break in?

Burglars don’t always carry their own tools of the trade with them. Often they rely on using the homeowner’s personal items left lying around the house. Put away ladders that could be used to access upper stories, or any other tools that might help someone break into your home. Look carefully around your home and consider any other means a burglar might use to get into your home. Might he climb a sturdy trellis to an upper floor? Or perhaps shimmy up a downspout? Although I’ve never gone this far myself, I once met a homeowner who greased all his rainspouts with petroleum jelly so no one could climb them to get in the second story. But I have to give him credit for noticing the downspouts as a possible means of entry and creatively doing something about it.

8. Is your address plainly visible from the street?

Emergency services such as police, ambulance, or fire can respond more quickly and efficiently if your address is easily seen from the street. I’ve known people who took steps to make their address easily seen when they were having a big party, but never considered how important this small, inexpensive measure was to their safety and security each and every day. When minutes count, it can literally save your life in case of fire, medical emergency, or home invasion.

9. Have you taken simple security measures in your garage?

People tend to overlook the garage as a security weakness, whether it’s attached to a house or freestanding. Make sure all doors lock, or you’re offering criminals a good place to hide. If the garage is attached to your house and he can get in easily, he now has a safe place out of sight where he can work on get ting into the house for hours. He could use tools stored there to pry off the connecting door, or even cut a hole through the wall between the garage and the house. He might also get into the garage ceiling and simply make his way across the crawl space to the house’s ceiling, then knock a hole out and drop right in. If your garage is detached, the burglar can make it a comfortable hiding place to watch you over a period of time to learn your habits, preparing to strike in the future. He could also steal your car, or lie in wait to attack you.

Don’t be caught in the dark in your garage. Keep it well lit, making sure all lights are in working order. It’s best to provide for turning garage lights on from inside the house.

10. Have you engraved, photographed, or otherwise identified and inventoried your personal property?

It’s easier to recover stolen property if you’ve identified it, but doing a thorough job of recording your items and marking them also makes it easier to deal with your insurance company should you need to. My favorite way of marking items is electric engraving. I like this method because it isn’t easy to remove. Some burglars will actually leave engraved items behind because they’re too difficult to fence. I recommend putting your state and your driver’s license number on items in this way:


Any police officer who finds stolen items marked in this way can immediately run a driver’s license check—anywhere, any time—and find out on the spot who owns the property. Anyone who’s been stopped by the police knows how quickly they can run a driver’s license. I don’t recommend using your Social Security number as ID for two reasons: Police don’t have ready access to those numbers to find out who you are, and your Social Security number is something you should be keeping as private as possible. Your SS number is tied to your finances, and a good cybercrook can use that to the fullest extent possible. Somehow mark your ID on all new purchases immediately so you don’t put it off and forget to do it at all. You might also take photographs or video of your items. Keep a copy of any photos, videotapes, and a written list of serial numbers some where off the premises, like a bank safe deposit box or a friend’s house. Always record serial numbers of items such as computers, TVs, firearms, and electronics. (Tip: Don’t toss the user’s manuals, even if you’re an expert in the use of the equipment. For many insurance companies, possession of the user’s manual is proof that you owned the item.)

When I graduated from college and was a (very) rookie cop, my house burned to the ground. Unfortunately, I hadn’t done a complete inventory of my property. Months after settling with the insurance company, I discovered items I’d missed in my original claim. They were little-used antique items that I had truly forgotten about, such as old fishing reels and my grandfather’s gold watch. Now I do regular yearly inventories just before hurricane season, in case I need to make storm insurance claims. I’m covered for anything that might happen.

11. How welt do you know your neighbors?

Close-knit communities and neighborhoods have lower crime rates than areas where neighbors don’t look out for each other. Residents are familiar with each other’s work and recreational habits, as well as who’s coming and going in the neighborhood. They’re alert and aware of suspicious activity or unfamiliar people and vehicles in the area.

If you don’t know your neighbors, it’s time to get to know them. That includes the nosy busybody down the street. Every neighborhood has one, and while you may not like it, this could be the person who is first alerted to criminal activity. Often during the course of investigating a burglary, victims told me about busybody neighbors and suggested I go talk with them immediately, since they might have seen something. Quite often, the busybodies not only saw someone, but could provide detailed descriptions. Yet many times, alert and aware neighbors who gave highly accurate descriptions of burglars and their movements didn’t attempt to call police. Why? One woman told me that she didn’t really know if the person she saw belonged in the house or not. She simply didn’t know her neighbors, but if she had, the burglary may have been interrupted in progress by police.

Consider putting extra-vigilant neighbors in charge of a neighborhood crime watch program, or invite them to join a Citizens’ Observer Patrol (COP) program through your local police department. They can actually make it their “job” to get to know everyone and be aware of what’s happening in the neighbor hood, and to call the police about suspicious activity or people.

Getting to know your neighbors can also clue you in to any potential threats in your midst. A friend told me that after her home was burglarized repeatedly, she talked to all of her neighbors to inform them of the thefts. While doing this, she learned that one of her neighbor’s sons had been having a terrible time with a drug problem. This made my friend think that the teen could be a good suspect for the burglaries. She reported what she learned to the police, who were later able to match the kid’s fingerprints to those lifted from inside my friend’s house. An arrest was made as a result.

12. Apartment dwellers: Do you have a crawl space in your ceiling that’s accessible from other apartments?

Attic spaces open across an entire building aren’t uncommon. They’re used to run air-conditioning ductwork, plumbing, and electrical wiring to units throughout the building. Such spaces are also a security risk—an intruder can enter the crawl space and have easy access to more than one apartment by simply kicking a hole in the ceiling and dropping into a unit. The burglar then leaves through the door.

There are two ways to secure this weakness. One is to block off access to the crawl space covering your unit. This is an expensive structural option that you may not be permitted to do, and even if you were, the cost may be your responsibility. The only other alternative is to use an alarm system. How to do this is explained in the next section on alarms.

13. Apartment dwellers: Do you have a balcony that’s accessible from adjoining balconies?

Experienced cat burglars often use this method of entry. I investigated a case in which one prolific cat burglar gained access to nearly every unit in a small apartment building during one night. It amazed me how the burglar could move through nearly a dozen units without waking the occupants, nimbly climbing from one balcony to another. He was so stealthy, he even stepped over one family’s sleeping dog -- successfully -- to get at a jewelry box.

When looking at your balcony for weaknesses, don’t just look sideways—depending on how the building is designed, a burglar might be able to drop in from an upper balcony, or pull himself up from a lower one. It doesn’t even take an expert. An acquaintance told me that she and her friends sneaked out of a college dormitory at night by dropping from the building’s fifth floor to the ground level, one balcony at a time. It was surprisingly easy to do so because of how the building was designed. Professional cat burglars use a knotted half-inch line tied to a small grappling hook to move quietly up and down balconies. Learning how to do this is easy, too. Uncle Sam is more than willing to teach you if you enlist in the military. This method has been used to scale walls since the time of medieval castles.

There are few remedies for easy-to-breach balconies. The simplest one is to not leave balcony doors open all night, even if you live on an upper floor. Remember, cat burglars love to climb, so just because you live on the tenth floor doesn’t mean you’re secure. Some people may not want to “hunker down” and fortify themselves in such a way that they no longer feel they can enjoy living in their high-rise. I’m no different—I like to leave my balcony door open at night to enjoy nice weather. But I use an alarm to feel secure doing this, details of which are covered in the next section on alarms.

Another way to help secure a balcony is to erect some physical barricades between your balcony and the ones on either side. You might use heavy planters, a trellis, or some other decorative means to create a wall. It may not stop the most experienced or determined cat burglar, but it’s a barrier that may serve to deflect him to a less prepared apartment dweller. A third security option is the use of an alarm system.

Most really good cat burglars seldom hit the middle class. Their skills are such that they tend to focus on the upper class, figuring if they’re going to take such risks, they might as well have a big payoff. But nothing can really rule you out as a possible target in this way, so it’s best to be alert and have a plan to cover the possibility.

More on the Fine Art of Deflecting Crime

I once arrested a successful cat burglar and was quite curious about how he’d gotten away with his crimes for so Long. I asked him point blank to tell me his secret and was surprised when he gave up a lot of his personal “tricks of the trade.” After finally getting caught, perhaps he had begun to think about retirement. I also asked him what deflected him from one target home to another and learned some interesting things I hadn’t thought of.

“Leave a light on in the bathroom,” he said. “That always sends me looking for another place to hit. I can never be certain if someone’s really home or not if I see a bathroom light on.”

People use the bathroom at all hours of the night, he explained. If he knocked on the door, as burglars often do to check if someone’s home, no answer wouldn’t automatically mean that the house was empty. Someone could indeed be in the bathroom and unable to jump up to answer the door.

“I never took a chance if I saw a bathroom light on. It just raised too many question marks,” he said.

Different things deflect different burglars. I prefer the word deflect to deter, because when you take preventive measures, you really are deflecting the crime, not actually deterring or stopping it. You only stop it from occurring to you, and there fore deflect it to an easier target of opportunity. If we were truly deterring crime, we’d see the crime statistics go down every time a crime prevention program was initiated.

Everything discussed above is intended to deflect a home break-in. Here are some more ideas for crime deflection in and around your home:

Top Ten Tips for Added Security

1. When valet parking, give only your car’s ignition key to the attendant. Never leave your house key—or other keys— with the valet. You probably have something in your car that has your address on it, such as an insurance card, car registration, even forgotten junk mail. An attendant or accomplice could quickly cut a copy of your house key and , armed with your address, head to your home to help himself to a few things while you’re dining.

2. Replace or rekey all locks when you move into a new house or apartment. I’m always amazed at how many people don’t do this, yet it seems like common sense.

3. If you live alone, don’t advertise the fact. Put an extra name or two on your mailbox or apartment building directory. On your answering machine, say “We” instead of “I” when recording your greeting message, or simply say, “Please leave a message.”

4. Completely secure your home anytime you leave it, even if—and especially if—it’s only for a few minutes or you’re just dropping by the neighbor’s. Lock all doors and windows, and turn on your security system.

5. If you go away for a few days, set up some interior lights on timer control. Newer timers can be set to turn tights on and off in more random patterns. If possible, place a timer on your TV as well.

6. When leaving home, ask a friend or neighbor to collect your mail and newspaper, and to open and close your drapes or blinds enough to give the appearance that some one’s home. See if a neighbor will park in your driveway.

7. Never leave a message on your answering machine that says you’re out of town. If possible, don’t leave such a message on your workplace voicemail, either. Many people routinely do this, thinking they must let work-related callers know they’re out of town. But doing so is no different in terms of broadcasting the fact that your house may be completely unoccupied.

8. Anytime you have service people visit your home, consider removing valuables and firearms from view. I’m not telling you to distrust all home service personnel, but I’ve seen cases in which the service person casually talked about someone’s nice home and possessions to a less trustworthy person, who then used the information to burglarize the home.

9. Make sure you can see someone at your front door. Security peepholes in the door are a must for every home, unless you can clearly see who’s at your door from either a nearby window or a glass pane in the door.

10. Consider replacing louvered or jalousie windows, which are difficult to secure. It’s too easy to remove the individual glass panes in these types of windows. The only option for louvered windows is alarmed screens.

Sometimes, Burglary Happens

For any number of reasons—not having a security system, having one and not turning it on—burglary happens. Everyone needs to have a plan for what to do if you come home and discover a break-in.

If you don’t currently have a home security system, you are at risk for break-ins. If you have a security system, it’s important to use it. Again, this isn’t a joke. Burglaries happen to homes with security systems, but when they do it’s almost always because the system wasn’t turned on. The odds of you coming home and finding a burglary if you’ve turned on your good, well-installed system are extremely low. You may find that someone tried to get in and was scared off by the alarm system, but rarely would you discover any of your property missing.

Think for a moment about what you would do if you came home and found your front door kicked in, or a window smashed out. Here’s a situation in which having a plan can literally be a matter of life and death. Discovering that your home has been broken in to can be so shocking that you can make impulsive— and highly dangerous—moves.

In one burglary case I worked, a young single woman had left her home for only twenty minutes just before noon. When she returned, she saw that her front door was wide open. At first she though her landlady had gone inside for some reason, but as she walked closer to the house, she noticed the door frame was broken and splintered. Now she was struck with the realization that her home had been broken into. Here’s where she made her first mistake: She hurried inside! She was concerned about her pets, and seeing one of her two cats through the screen door made her worried about the second one. Inside, she made her second mistake: She hurried throughout the house, opening closed closet doors and walking into all the rooms. She saw immediately that all her home office equipment was gone, as was her jewelry box. She also noticed, however, that her TV, VCR, and stereo were still there. (Take note—this is important.) After a few minutes, she grabbed the phone and called 911. The dispatcher asked where she was calling from, and she answered that she was inside her home. The dispatcher immediately told her to get out of the house and wait for the police outside. The woman did so. The police arrived, went inside, and began their investigation. In the process, they were able to determine that a pair of burglars had been scared off by a phone call to the woman’s home only minutes before she returned! The message on her answering machine explained why the burglars fled: “Hey, I’m on my way over—see ya!” The burglars had no way of knowing that her friend lived more than an hour away and wouldn’t be there for a while. But if that phone call hadn’t happened, the burglars would probably have still been in her home when she walked brazenly inside. The ending to the story might have been quite different.

Often what starts out as a simple burglary can turn into assault, rape, or even murder if a burglar is surprised or trapped in the house. This is why it’s so important to make these two items a part of your everyday security plan:

1. If you see a broken window, slit screen, open door, or any thing else suspicious at your home, don’t go inside. Call 911 from a cell phone or a neighbor’s home, or if you have to, find a pay phone.

2. If you go inside your home and discover that a break-in has occurred from a door or window you couldn’t see at first, go outside immediately and call 911.

You should also have a plan for what to do if you see a burglary or suspicious behavior at a neighbor’s home or else where in the neighborhood. Take these steps for your safety and security:

1. Call 911 to report the break-in or suspicious activity.

2. Stay inside. Don’t go outside and put yourself in harm’s way or do something to cause the criminal to flee. You may want to stop the crime in progress, but you also want the police to catch the crook, preferably in the act.

3. Don’t challenge the crook. I investigated a case in which someone got shot confronting the criminal by yelling out the window at him, “Hey, you! You don’t belong there!” Keep your mouth shut and don’t let him know you’ve seen him.

4. Stay on the phone with the police. You may be able to act as their eyes and ears, providing valuable information on what’s going on until they get to the scene. In one case, a woman called 911 to report two suspicious men in her condo complex and learned they were burglars in the process of being chased by police. From her vantage point, the woman provided police with a detailed play-by-play of the crooks’ movements, leading to a successful capture and , eventually, two convictions.

Next: Electronic Security Alarm Systems

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