What You Need to Know About False Alarms

Anne Dennon
Anne Dennon
Home Technology Writer

Maybe the motion sensors mistake your dog for an intruder. Or you gave a neighbor the spare key but not the code. There are many harmless scenarios that your home security system can mistake for go-time. In some ways, it’s a modern retelling of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Only the monitoring center that fields your alerts, and the first responders who make a beeline for your property when dispatched, will never stop responding.

For this reason, false alarms pose a major drain on public resources. A study by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing states that false alarms account for 94-98% of alarm calls, at an estimated annual cost of $1.8 billion. To keep homeowners accountable for their security systems, many municipalities have imposed false alarm fees.

False alarm fees vary widely depending on where you live, but they tend to increase with each offense. Your first false alarm might cost you, say, $50. The second within the same year, $100. The third within the same year, $200.

Repeat false alarms add up fast. Avoid the expense — both to you and to taxpayers supporting first-response teams — by managing your system well.

Register Your Home Security System

Check with local government to see if they require a burglar alarm or security permit. Permits aren’t required everywhere, but the number of districts that do require them is growing. If your alarm brings public safety officers to your door and you don’t have the necessary permits, you could be slapped with a fine.

Install Devices Correctly

When home security was hardwired, professional installation was the norm. Today, home security is increasingly DIY. Most latter-day systems, like SimpliSafe, Google Nest, Ring, and Abode, make DIY installation the default. One perk of the traditional, pro-installed approach: guaranteed functionality. It’s their job to set your system up right. Whether you shell out for the assurance of professional installation (most companies charge around $100) or take the project on yourself, double check your system’s installation with thorough testing. That includes fine-tuning advanced features like noise detection and motion sensors that can be customized to alert you under the right conditions (and ignore potential false alarm causes).

Take Control

App-controlled home security puts power in your hands — to arm and disarm your system, investigate the cause of alerts, and decide when it’s time to call the cops. These are the capabilities that make self-monitoring, an affordable and increasingly popular option, possible. But even if you opt for professional monitoring, you can put your home security app to work to vet alerts before they become alarms.

Whether you choose self-monitoring or professional monitoring, become well-acquainted with your security app and make sure you can respond to calls from the monitoring center and automated alerts in a timely fashion. Putting your phone on silent, forgetting to charge it, or leaving it at home have negative consequences. If you have professional monitoring, nonresponse to alerts makes you vulnerable to false alarms. If you self-monitor, nonresponse negates your security system’s value.

Regularly Check Your Equipment

Faulty devices and low batteries can trigger false alarms. Set a reminder on your phone to check your home security equipment, experiment with arming and disarming and making changes to settings to ensure that each piece is functional.

Keep in mind that both hardwired and battery-powered equipment need fresh batteries. If the back-up batteries in a wired device are low during a power outage, it could trigger an alarm.

Make a Plan to Avoid False Alarms

Most professionally monitored systems make a minimum of two calls to household members before calling the police. Designate two people who are most likely to attend to their phones and be able to judge whether or not first responders are necessary.

Next, educate your entire family on how to arm and disarm your home security system. User error is one of the top three causes of false alarms, according to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing study.

Finally, make sure you aren’t setting the scene for false alarms by placing motion sensors above pet-height, ensuring doors and windows are locked before arming the system, and protecting your system from environmental risks (like pests, storm damage, or remodeling).

There will always be uncontrollable elements that can lead to false alarms, be it surprise guests or system malfunctions. Control what you can to ensure your home security is as valuable, and believable, as possible. Save your “Wolf!” cries for when it counts.

About the Authors

Anne Dennon

Anne Dennon Home Technology Writer

Anne has covered home security and home automation for Reviews.com for two years. She's interested in human-computer interaction and tech ethics. She previously worked in education and information literacy.