North Jersey police issued warning about Wi-Fi jammers. How concerned should you be?

A Morris County police department's warning about a Wi-Fi jammer being used in an attempted burglary made headlines last week. But how much of a concern is this technology? Experts interviewed by NorthJersey.com had differing takes.

Around 11:30 a.m. on June 10, a Florham Park resident in the basement of his home on Lincoln Avenue reported hearing a noise from the ground floor, Police Chief Joseph Orlando said in a notice to the community.

The resident briefly saw an unknown man on surveillance cameras attempting to enter his home before the camera system and his cellphone lost service. Police later determined the suspect used a Wi-Fi jammer, which made all devices accessible by Wi-Fi inoperable inside the house, according to Orlando.

Orlando called the method of the burglary an "alarming technological advance," with a layer of sophistication not previously experienced in the area.

"While Wi-Fi jamming devices are not new to the criminal underworld, it is the first we have seen or heard of such devices being utilized in Morris County," he said.

The Morris County Sheriff's Office declined further comment on the alleged criminal incident nor would it speak to any increases in such activity, stating that it was an active investigation and that commenting could be prejudicial to the outcome.

But according to Tom Shea, former director of the Police Graduate Studies Program at Seton Hall University and a retired Long Branch police lieutenant, criminals are getting "much, much more sophisticated." And with technology readily available and affordable to the average person, this level of activity is "becoming much worse," he said.

He likens it to a game of cat and mouse.

"The criminals get better and then law enforcement has to figure out what they're doing and get better tools," Shea said, "and then the criminals figure that out, and they get a different tool."

Brian Higgins, former Bergen County police chief and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, believes such criminal activity is still relatively infrequent and can be largely avoided with the proper precautions.

Higgins said he does not yet view this type of burglary as a trend, noting, "It's pretty high-tech; you have to know what you're doing." However, he added, "I think you're going to see more of this" as tech-savvy criminals figure out how to counteract the security systems.

Now, it is up to the security companies to stay one step ahead of the criminals to keep their customers safe.

Higgins and Shea believe the system operators began working on solutions once the first jamming incidents became public and will eventually introduce features to combat the practice.

This type of crime is becoming more common with the emergence of wireless alarm systems from companies like Ring and SimpliSafe. The systems are designed for homeowners' convenience by connecting everything to one source, but that also means it is easier for criminals to dismantle.

"If you can jam the Wi-Fi, there goes your alarm system," Higgins said. He compared the practice to another recent exploitation of new technology: stealing parked cars from driveways where the owners left the key fob inside.

Wi-Fi jammers, which could also block signals on police walkie talkies, are illegal under federal law. Assemblywoman Carol Murph, D-Mount Laurel, introduced legislation earlier this year that would criminalize it on a state level. The proposed bill was referred to the Assembly Judiciary Committee in February.

In the Florham Park incident, the resident flagged down a pedestrian in the street, who was able to call 911. Members of the Florham Park and Madison Police Departments and the Morris County Sheriff's Office responded to the scene but were unable to locate the suspect, who fled once he realized the resident was in the home.

First cars, now homes in 'sleepy suburbs'

Shea said what first started as criminal enterprises selling drugs or teams of people stealing cars in affluent neighborhoods has become much more sophisticated over time, with criminals learning new technology and consistently trying to stay one step ahead of police. The risk, he said, is worth the reward.

Florham Park Police connected the alleged burglary with a criminal group overseas. Shea said it wouldn't be surprising, since transnational crime is "nothing new." The rate of globalization has increased over the years due to technological advances that makes criminal activity much easier to commit, he said.

So how do police departments keep up?

It's likely law enforcement across North Jersey have met and may already be in talks to form task forces to combat the increase in "sophisticated crime," but if not, Shea said it's vital police "kind of wake up" and realize they need to address the criminal activity, because he sees it "becoming much worse."

And such criminal activity is likely to continue infiltrating into the suburbs.

Some criminals are highly intelligent and have all the time in the world to train to do what they are doing, Shea said. And with the new tools they have, they realize that staking out homes in sleepy, upscale suburbs are easy targets because officers aren't necessarily as vigilant as they are in the inner city.

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"The average street cop walking the beat is a thing of the past," Shea said. Departments could hire subcontractors well-versed in the realm to try and combat the activity or integrate civilian groups to assist.

Unfortunately, many departments are lacking in manpower and resources — he noted some police departments are suffering critical staffing shortages — so those officers who are tech savvy may not always be readily available. And the FBI can only handle so much, he added.

But Shea believes that in the future, police departments will eventually see a split of civilian analysts working on the inside of departments who are adept in the technical side of operations, with officers still responding on the streets.

Mitigation strategies: 'Don't be naive'

As companies work on improving their products, law enforcement experts are suggesting steps homeowners can take to protect themselves.

"While we continue to investigate this incident the only mitigation strategies we can offer, at this time, to combat a Wi-Fi jamming device is to have your surveillance camera systems hardwired in your home and to have a landline telephone," Orlando said. "Furthermore, regularly inspect your landscaping for any potential disguised surveillance devices and contact the Police Department immediately if locating the same."

Higgins seconded the hardwired surveillance tip. He suggested installing at least one camera that is not powered by Wi-Fi, as homeowners should never rely on only one method to protect their property.

"In the world of security, there are no silver bullets," he said.

Shea also stressed redundancy when it comes to homeowners protecting their home, such as having flood lights and an audible security alarm.

"What if the internet was out anyway?" he said, adding that it doesn't matter if they have Wi-Fi or hardwired alarms, but what's important is to not rely on one single form of technology to stay protected.

Higgins also offered some common-sense measures to avoid becoming a burglary victim, such as locking all doors and leaving lights on to scare off would-be perpetrators. He suggested installing motion sensors attached to outdoor lighting, which would likely drive away burglars looking to avoid a confrontation.

If you detect someone unfamiliar in the house, Higgins said, get outside as fast as possible and do not try to confront the suspect.

"Everyone thinks naively, and honestly, I don't really blame them," Shea added. Homeowners don't have the mentality of a criminal, so believing they have a Ring camera and they are safe is naïve — and criminals capitalize on that.

In his over 20 years in law enforcement, Shea said he was involved in a multi-state crime ring where criminals would break into colleges up and down the East Coast. The criminals would dress as college students, break into offices and steal equipment before moving on to their next target. In another case he was investigating, a transnational group of drug dealers completely wiped out their encrypted cellphones once they got wind that police were on to them.

And those happened nearly a decade ago.

"Can you imagine the technology, how it has advanced since then?" Shea said.

See something? Speak up.

Police want to know when homeowners see something suspicious, so don't be afraid to report unusual activity, Shea said.

People fear they overreact and don't think it's serious enough to call police, but Shea, who worked in community relations for many years, said he urges homeowners to trust their instincts.

"You're not going to be bothering police by saying, 'Hey, there's some strange guy across the street. I don't know what he's doing there,'" Shea said.

It could be nothing, but it's best to call, because if neighbors start looking out for one another and police get repetitive calls, it may be the best way to combat attempted burglaries.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Wi-Fi jammer burglary makes headlines in NJ. How prevalent is it?

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