Householders have been urged to hide their valuables in unusual places after a scientific study revealed how experienced burglars choose predictable routes when raiding homes.
Research found that career crooks targeted high-value areas, such as bedrooms, studies and living rooms, were suspicious of unusual rooms and rarely entered bathrooms.
The University of Portsmouth ran the study on the methods used by burglars and non-burglars after seeing their actions first-hand during mock burglaries.
In the tests, all the experienced burglars entered houses by the back door, while the novices went through the front door.
All the burglars navigated the house in a systematic way, with half heading straight for upstairs bedrooms and avoiding bathrooms before returning downstairs.
Dr Claire Nee said the experiments were designed to shed light on the cognitive processes of offenders.
She said: "It sounds obvious that people who have been jailed for committing serial burglaries are experts at stealing, but we didn't have any understanding of what exactly they do or don't do which sets them apart from novices.
"We didn't know how they think or the way they approach the job of stealing. We have interviewed many offenders before but this time we were able to observe them for the first time.
"The findings have important lessons for crime prevention and suggest that if you've got something valuable you really want to protect, you might be better off hiding small things among the toothpaste tubes.
"Trying to get into the mind of the burglar would also help. We leave opportunities for them everywhere."
As part of the study, six serial offenders and six people with no criminal records were asked to take part in two tests.
One test involved burgling a house wearing a head-mounted camera and a motion capture suit. They were asked to touch anything they would steal.
In the second test, they carried out the same crime in a virtual house on a computer designed at the University of Sussex, clicking with the mouse on any item they would steal.
All were then asked to talk through the footage taken on the head-mounted camera, discussing their thinking and methods.
Dr Nee said: "The study highlighted that burglars approached the simulated house almost identically to the real house, which means we can develop simulations to safely observe offending behaviour and use them with large populations of convicted offenders.
"Using these simulations, we can also try out various crime prevention techniques which will stop the offender in his tracks and shock him out of his tried and tested habits. This will increase his anxiety and the likelihood of the crime being abandoned."
The study showed that experienced burglars spent more than twice the amount of time in downstairs rooms, which are generally considered to contain more high-value items.
Serial burglars and novices took a similar number of goods, but the burglars' hauls were worth about £1,000 more and included designer handbags, wallets, cash, phones and leather jackets, most of which had been ignored by novices.
Dr Nee said: "As expected, the burglars were much more efficient, systematic and persistent than the novices. Through deliberate practice and repeated exposure to the layout of houses, burglars can automatically recognise which are the high-value areas of the house.
"Two key features of experts in any field are that they can instantly recognise features of the environment that signify a successful outcome and then behave more or less automatically to reap the rewards based on their finely honed skills."