Even cops say this new Alexa 'skill' might scare off potential burglars


SAN FRANCISCO — Homeowners have always come up with clever ways to scare away potential burglars. They leave the television on while they’re away, install dummy cameras or plant the classic “BEWARE OF DOG” sign in the front yard, even though it’s just a teacup poodle in the backyard.

A new “skill” for Amazon’s Echo smart speaker takes things a step further: Away Mode attempts to trick potential burglars into thinking somebody is home by playing long audio clips that sound like real — albeit absurd — conversations that could be happening inside.

The skill, created by Hippo Insurance, a San Francisco-based home insurance company, includes about a half-dozen conversations. Users can ask Alexa to play Away Mode, and it will play recorded conversations like a couple breaking up while trying to watch TV, a frustrated mom explaining to her daughter how to assemble IKEA furniture over the phone or two average guys talking about what makes them unique because they want to start a podcast. 

The idea was to come up with “funny but somewhat common conversations that happen in a home,” says Andrea Collins, head of brand marketing at Hippo Insurance.

Hippo came up with topics for the skits and partnered with a public relations agency to recruit the talent, which includes comedy writers from popular television shows and clubs.

“It’s like that scene from Home Alone, except instead of cardboard cutouts, it’s insufferable conversations written by the writers of SNL (Saturday Night Live), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade),” says the Away Mode description on Amazon.com.

The idea might seem silly but one veteran police officer says it could successfully deter burglars.

Throughout his 30-year policing career, Jim Bueermann, a retired police chief from California and the current president of the Police Foundation, advised people to leave the radio or the television on, park a car in the driveway and have a friend pick up the mail and newspaper during a vacation.

“It’s what we call hardening the target,” he said. “Most burglars don’t want you to see them. They want to get in, steal your stuff and get out.”

Bueermann employs those home security methods himself. Though don’t get too complacent. A dedicated burglar will eventually realize they’ve being tricked, he said.

“If I’m a burglar and I’m nervy enough, I’ll sit there and listen and figure out it’s a radio or a TV,” he said.

But a device that can create an illusion that people are talking inside?

“Theoretically it’s a good idea,” says Bueermann. “If this thing mimics real conversation, it’s much more likely to trick the burglar into believing somebody is home.”

There is a similar — although not quite as funny — skill available on the Echo. It’s called Burglar Deterrent, and it takes a more serious approach. Users can ask Alexa to pay a clip of pots and pans banging around in the kitchen or vacuum sounds in the living room.

Home Away isn’t meant to be a serious security tool, says Collins. She hopes the ridiculous skits will get people thinking about home security, but she doesn’t want people to rely on Away Mode to keep their home safe.

“It’s a humorous, engaging way for people not only to view home security but to talk about it,” Collins said. 

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