Has your home been marked?

According to a report by Express.co.uk, some criminals use a series of symbols to mark potential targets.

Police departments in Lanarkshire, Scotland, and West Yorkshire, England, published lists of symbols burglars apparently mark on the walls of potential targets. Dubbed “the housebreakers’ code” or “the Da Pinchi code,” the lists quickly caused a stir on social media.

Purported symbols include an X, which indicates a good target, and a line of circles, which indicates a wealthy occupant. An open door indicates a vulnerable occupant, while a “D” indicates high risk.

Several social media users left comments under the lists to indicate that they’d seen similar signs.

“Outside my house just now is a x with a circle round it,” wrote a woman named Gemma McPike. “My hubby said it was the Virgin Media guys yesterday. I’ve just called them and they know nothing about it. So I’ve called 101 and reported it. However the x with circle round it means “nothing worth stealing” so hopefully nothing to worry about.”

Several sites have suggested that the symbols are a hoax.

To be fair, there’s little chance that every criminal uses the same set of symbols. As Snopes points out, the use of a “Da Pinchi code” also flies in the face of common sense. Why would criminals do anything that might give away their plans?

“Nearly all property crime is predicated upon the desire to enrich oneself or one’s interests with minimal effort,” writes David Mikkelson of Snopes, “and an element missing from the belief that thieves pre-mark homes to rob is one that fails to sufficiently explain where the added value in such a proposition lies.”

“It’s possible to burgle a home without first essaying a legend detailing its contents and the temperament of its occupants, an unpleasant reality of day-to-day life that plays out with unfortunate frequency.”

That’s hardly comforting, however, when the symbols actually show up on your door frame.

We spoke with a woman who found herself in that exact scenario. Sarah lives in an apartment complex near St. Louis, Missouri (because the situation is ongoing, she asked to use a pseudonym). As she was walking her dog on a cool Friday morning, she noticed something strange.

“This sounds lame, but I’m pretty OCD, so I always touch certain places on my door,” Sarah said. “When we got back from our walk, I noticed the symbols on the right side of my door frame. One looked like a dollar sign and the other was an X.”

The symbols were small, but clearly discernable.

“I’m not sure when they appeared, but I can say with confidence it was no more than three days from when I noticed them.”

The complex had suffered several recent vehicle break-ins, and Sarah’s boyfriend was one of the victims, so she took the signs seriously.

“When I first saw the symbols, my belly started hurting. I can’t explain why, but it was literally a gut reaction,” she said. “I tried not to panic, but after speaking to my apartment complex manager and hearing about the other thefts, that’s when I truly started worrying.”

“I may or may not have called my dad crying,” she said with a laugh. “Okay, I called my dad crying.”

She called the office of her apartment complex to report the damage, and the complex’s manager told her that several other recent thefts had taken place on the property. Sarah hadn’t heard about the symbols reported in the “housebreakers’ code” reports.

After photographing the symbols on Sarah’s door and making a police report, the manager quickly had the symbols sanded off the door frame. Sarah and her boyfriend installed a security system and checked all of the apartment’s entry points for signs of damage, but she’s still worried.

“It sucks to not feel safe at the one place you’re supposed to feel the most comfortable,” she said.

Sarah’s markings don’t match up with the list issued by UK police departments.

However, that’s understandable. Again, it’s not likely that criminals adhere to a single code (particularly criminals from different countries).

In fact, it’s doubtful that most burglars use any symbols at all, since the symbols do give away crucial information about a potential crime. A burglar would have to be pretty careless to mark a property prior to a theft.

But Sarah notes that the residents in her apartment complex are trusting, blue-collar people—perhaps her local criminals assumed that their marks would go unnoticed.

Do codes make sense for criminals?

There’s certainly some historical precedent. The Da Pinchi code is reminiscent of the Hobo Code, a series of symbols used by homeless migrant workers in the early 20th century to relay information to their peers. It contains signs for “owners will give to get rid of you” and “good place to catch a train,” but nothing about burglaries. Hobos, it seems, mostly looked for honest work.

In Europe, these “tramp signs” took a more insidious tone. From the 17th to the 19th century, vagabonds used a similar set of symbols to mark properties, and those symbols gradually evolved to accommodate criminal activity. By the 20th century, investigators understood most of the code. According to one investigator’s handbook, tramps had signs for “theft worthwhile” and “careful: a cop lives here.”

Gradually, the code died out. After all, symbols are much less effective when law enforcement understands them. Modern travelers occasionally create signs to indicate the presence of a strong Wi-Fi signal, but that’s about all you’ll find.

In the modern age, criminals often prefer to use cell phones to discuss their crimes, since going electronic limits their risks substantially. Still, tramp signs occasionally pop up, and it stands to reason that some criminals would attempt to mark properties.

All of that said, if you find a strange symbol on your property, report it immediately…

Just don’t assume that criminals will give you any type of warning before they attempt to break in. According to security expert Bill Stanton, the key to maintaining a secure home is diligence.

“There’s no single magic bullet to securing your home,” Stanton told ABC. “It’s all about layering. You should have several layers of protection that keep your home safe.”

Stanton recommends checking all entry points, including those in garages, attics, and basements, and outfitting every potential entrance not only with highly rated locks, but with motion detection devices. Modern security systems can provide mobile notifications, which can give homeowners tremendous peace of mind.

Criminals are unlikely to target a home if they believe that it’s occupied, so Stanton also recommends timed lights, smartphone technology, and other tricks to aid in deterrence. And while dogs can help to scare away criminals, they’re not ideal as a first line of defense unless they’ve been specifically trained for the task.

According to FBI crime data, there were about 2,159,878 burglaries in 2010, which was a 2 percent decrease when compared with 2009 data. Per 100,000 occupants, about 705 of them were the victims of burglary.

So, while your chances of suffering a burglary are fairly low, there’s no sense in taking unnecessary risks. By all means, look out for strange symbols—we’ve seen firsthand evidence that some criminals have used them—but also create a complete plan to address all potential threats. After all, most criminals won’t give advanced notice.