On her birthday, Nancy Traylor of Richmond, Virginia, received an unwelcome surprise. The real estate agent and her husband were celebrating near the Chesapeake Bay, about 90 minutes from home, when she checked her cellphone and saw video of someone on her front porch stealing a package. The unexpected delivery turned out to be a birthday gift sent by a friend: a valuable Mark and Graham purse.
Porch pirates. Lawn looters. Backyard bandits. Whatever you call them, these criminals are brazen and opportunistic, boosting interest in "video doorbells" from companies such as Ring, Nest, Greet, RemoBell and iseeBell. Traylor credits hers for aiding police in nabbing the thief.
When Jamie Siminoff invented what is now the Ring doorbell in 2012, he could hardly anticipate that, six years later, consumer spending on "smart" doorbell cameras would top $530 million, according to Strategy Analytics. The market researcher forecasts that more than 3.4 million video doorbells will be sold this year, with the United States accounting for the majority of sales.
At their most basic, smart doorbells stream real-time video to your smartphone, tablet or desktop, showing you who is at your doorstep and allowing you to speak with them. Throw in motion detection, cloud video storage, floodlights and sirens, and you are "always home no matter where you are," Siminoff says.
After someone broke into his house while he was on the road, Steve Ludwig of Daytona Beach, Florida, researched home-security options. Concerned about the cost of a traditional whole-house system, he instead installed a Ring video doorbell and floodlight cameras. Six days later, while traveling again, Ludwig received an alert on his phone that someone was at his front door.
"I could see a truck pull in the driveway. This guy dressed as an air conditioner repairman walks to my backyard," he says. "I switched to the back camera and watched him peer in the windows and rattle the backdoor handle. So I turned on the audio feature and yelled, 'Hey dude, get the [expletive] out of my yard - the cops are on the way.' He fled to his truck and drove off."
Within minutes, Ludwig was sharing images of the suspect and his vehicle with the Volusia County Sheriff's Office. Less than 90 minutes later, a deputy spotted the truck and pulled it over, later arresting the perpetrator on several active warrants. He remains in jail, awaiting trial.
"The cost of a home-security system deterred me for years, but I'm tech-savvy enough to use an app on my smartphone," Ludwig says. "If I had a video doorbell the first time I was robbed, I'm 100 percent sure the police would have caught them, too."
Although peace of mind and safer neighborhoods may be the selling points for video doorbells, affordability is key. Models start at $99. For instance, Ring charges $3 a month or $30 a year to store videos in the cloud for up to 60 days. Nest runs $10 per month for 24/7 recording and 10-day video history. Ludwig estimates he spent $540 to fully equip his home and pays $10 per month for a professionally monitored security system.
Many law enforcement agencies have become fans of video doorbells, so much so, that some departments offer programs in which residents can register their home video cameras. "If something happens in your area, we will contact you and ask you to look at the video on a specific date," says Matthew Lee, a crime analyst for the Longmont, Colorado, Public Safety Department. "Then, if you spot something, you send us the clip so we can try and identify the suspect or vehicle."
Often the best evidence isn't of the crime itself, but video of pathways and streets leading into and out of the scene. Lee recalls a video that helped crack the case of a nighttime burglary and auto theft. Though the video was shot a block and a half away, it allowed his office to determine the crime's time frame and identify the thieves' vehicle. Longmont police were able to make arrests and recover some of the stolen items.
As for Traylor, upon her return, she called the Richmond Police Department and emailed the video to Det. Steve Rawlings. Then she posted the video to Facebook and papered her neighborhood with the thief's picture on fliers.
Three days later, someone outside a nearby church spotted the man and called Traylor, who called Rawlings. The man was arrested and is serving a two-year jail sentence. (And, in case you were wondering, Mark and Graham sent Traylor a gift card to replace the purloined purse.)
Do video doorbell cameras deter crime? The jury is still out. "Cameras or not, crime is going to happen," Rawlings says. "But, a camera system gives us a better description to identify someone than just canvassing a neighborhood for witnesses. In this case, we were able to identify the suspect 100 percent because he was known to law enforcement and the video was of such high quality."
Which brings us to another reason police are keen on doorbell cameras: the visuals. "Old surveillance footage used to look like a horror movie. Today, it's crystal clear," Rawlings says. "In court, anyone can deny they were at a crime scene, but with time-stamped video, you can't argue."
Adds Capt. Carmen Del Palazzo of New Jersey's Voorhees Police Department, "For a few hundred bucks, you can cover your whole house. And criminals don't want to be seen on camera. It makes them think twice."
Well, most of them. In an ironic twist, homeowners report thieves are stealing video doorbells - while being filmed. (Companies such as Nest and Ring will replace stolen doorbells as long as you file a police report.)
When it comes to cameras vs. criminals, video doorbells are one more gadget in the law enforcement toolbox. According to spokesman Joel DeSpain of the Madison, Wisconsin, Police Department: "Video cameras can take the place of good neighbors. If no one is home, you are victimized and there are no witnesses, it's usually a dead end . . . unless there is a video."
This article was written by Laura Daily, Special to the The Washington Post.