When burglar alarms don't work

Freakonomics Radio's Stephen Dubner on the high costs of faulty home alarm systems.

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every couple of weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog...

Alarm noise

Stephen Dubner: Oh geez, Kai. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Fight through it.

Ryssdal: Books and the blog of the same name. It is of course the hidden side of everything.

Alarm noise

Dubner: Let me find the button, Kai. I got it. I got it. Apologies.

Ryssdal: All right. So what are you doing?

Dubner: I'm sorry. We just put a burglar alarm in the studio here. It goes off like every five minutes. I'm so sorry.

Ryssdal: One would think you'd be able to turn it off when you're on the radio, dude.

Dubner: You would, but it's not just me, Kai. Do you have any idea what the false alarm rate is for burglary alarms in this country?

Ryssdal: Well I'm just going to guess that you're trying to make a point here, so I would say high. Yes?

Dubner: The data show that false alarms account for 94-99 percent of all alarm calls.

Ryssdal: God. Wow. I mean, that's great that they're false alarms, but it's bad that they're false alarms. Right?

Dubner: You know who hates it even more than the homeowners are the police. Listen to Craig Steckler. He's the police chief of Fremont, Calif. When he realized that 98 percent of these alarm calls to his department were false alarms, he started to figure out what this was actually costing.

Craig Steckler: The officer's time, we figured that it was around $67 for each officer to respond, two officers per call. Then the dispatch time was around $12 for every dispatch call. So we took those figures and multiplied it by our number of alarms and came up with this figure of $664,000-something. Pretty outrageous.

Ryssdal: Geez. Wow. That's just a lot of false alarms.

Dubner: We talked to Simon Hakim, an economist at Temple who's been studying this issue for a long time. He says that in a given year, U.S. police respond to more than 35 million alarm activations. Now again, Kai, something like 95 percent of them are false alarms and the cost is about $2 billion.

Simon Hakim: Most of the time, it's not a burglar that came to your house, but it's false activation. So the 94-99 percent, you get a personal service. It's not enhancing in any way or form the security of the community.

Ryssdal: So that phrase he used, "false activation," what does that name?

Dubner: Well one industry expert we talked to puts about 75 percent of the blame on user error. So of course the industry would blame us stupid users. And then there's the weather and power surges, and also let's not forget there are actual burglars out there, about 2 million burglaries a year in the U.S.

Ryssdal: So do these alarm systems deter 'em? Would it be 5 million without 'em?

Dubner: Hakim says that yes, that alarm systems to deter burglars to some degree. The sign in the yard and the threat of the alarm and the police. So we've got a deterrent effect, which just happens to have an extraordinarily high false-positive rate.

Ryssdal: What does the alarm industry say? I mean, they're obviously making a lot of money selling these things that don't work 95 percent of the time.

Dubner: Well, good point. We talked to Ron Walters with the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, which helps deal with the complaints about false alarms from the police departments.

Ron Walters: It's our No. 1 priority. This is the one issue that we have decided has to be addressed.

Dubner: So they're proposing better design for alarm keypads. More video monitoring to verify whether an alarm call's legit. But if you think about how the incentives are laid out, Kai, you do have to wonder how hard the alarm companies really need to try. Here's Chief Steckler again.

Steckler: They have a business model that sells a product that gets serviced by a public entity that they don't even pay to do the service. So it's money in their pocket. Why should they change?

Ryssdal: Yeah, that's the total skeptical/realist view. But he's got a point, right?

Dubner: He does have a point. Financial analysts say that industry leader ADT, for instance, has an operating margin of about 25 percent on roughly $3 billion on annual revenues. So these false alarms pose what economists call a negative externality. That is, the provider charges you for the service, but then they pass along a big part of their costs to someone else. In this case, the police departments and the taxpayers who support them.

Ryssdal: Right. So what are we supposed to do about it? What are the solutions?

Dubner: Well it's probably a good idea to make the alarm companies more accountable in some fashion, including having them make alarms that don't fail so often. In the meantime, some cities have started to penalize homeowners for repeated false alarms -- cash fines, even misdemeanor charges. As for me, I think I'm just going to ditch my new alarm that seems to go off every five minutes. I'm going old school. Here Kai, so if this new alarm of mine would actually keep you out of my studio.

Dog growling

Dubner: Go ahead. Make my dog's day, Kai.

Ryssdal: I've been to your house. I know you don't have a dog, get out of here Mr. Upper West Side. Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics.com is the website. See you in a couple of weeks.

Dubner: Talk to you soon, Kai. Thanks.

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