Key Legal Terms: Burglary vs. Robbery

by Susan Evans

Although you may say, “I’ve been robbed,” by definition, you may actually have been “burgled.” Here’s what specifics on robbery, burglary, theft, larceny, and extortion.


Robbery (commonly known as a “holdup” or a “stickup”) is taking or attempting to take something of value from another person by use of force, threats, or intimidation. It’s committed in the presence of the victim — think bank robbery or mugging.

Robbery is usually divided into different degrees and can vary by state, depending on the presence of a weapon or an accomplice. “Aggravated robbery” is when the suspect uses a weapon or makes the victim believe he has a weapon. But any degree of robbery is considered a felony by law.


Burglary (commonly known as a “break-in,” “breaking and entering” or B&E) is the unlawful entry of a structure (physical building) to commit a felony or a theft. (Car break-ins or thefts are considered larcenies.)

Types of burglary:

  • Non-forcible entry — gaining access through an unlocked door or window with the intent to commit a felony or theft
  • Forcible entry — gaining access by breaking or forcing roofs, windows or doors; using tools to gain access; picking locks, etc.
  • Attempted forcible entry — attempting to gain access by force but is frightened off

WHN TIP – Location Makes A Difference: The definitions and investigative procedures for each type of crime can vary by state and/or jurisdiction. Contact a legal advisor or a police officer in your area for more information.


Larceny is similar to burglary. The major difference between the two is that the perpetrator did not illegally enter a structure by using forcible, non-forcible or attempted forcible entry (with the exception of a motor vehicle.)

Depending on the degree of larceny, the penalties may range from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Theft, larceny, and loss of personal property may not be covered under certain insurance policies. Be sure to read your policy carefully.

Types of larceny:

  • Theft of a motor vehicle or items (parts, accessories, personal property) from a motor vehicle, whether it was locked or unlocked.
  • Purse snatching, shoplifting, theft of any bicycle, fraud, embezzlement, identity theft, forgery, con games, etc.
  • Grand larceny: stealing an amount valued at $200 or more. (U.S. definition)
  • Petit (petty) larceny:  stealing an amount valued at less than $200 (U.S. definition)


Legally, theft is often synonymous with larceny. Theft, larceny, and loss of personal property may not be covered under certain insurance policies. Be sure to read your policy carefully.


Sometimes viewed under the category of theft or larceny, extortion is when a person forces another person to do something against his will (usually give up some money) by the threat of violence, property damage, extreme financial hardship, or damage to the person’s reputation. Blackmail is a type of extortion. Racketeering is also often linked to extortion.

In a robbery, the offender steals from the victim by immediate threats and force. In extortion, the victim willingly hands over personal property in order to avoid future damage or violence.

Investigation Differences

WHN TIP – Be As Helpful As You Can: While this is a difficult time, the more accurate and complete your information is, the more it will help the police in their investigation. Ask whom you should contact if you remember something later that could be useful.


The main part of the investigation will involve identifying the perpetrator or the person who committed the robbery.  If you or a family member has been robbed, the police will ask questions about

  • the perpetrator’s clothing, age, height, weight, hair color, and other distinguishing factors
  • the type of car he/she was driving and in which direction he/she was headed
  • anything the perpetrator said

Accurately and correctly naming characteristics and information may help the police in their investigation.


The main part of the investigation focuses on the breaking-and-entering areas, such as the entry and exit points. The police may dust for fingerprints, take pictures and ask you questions about the burglary.

Larceny and Theft

There are many different types of larceny-thefts. Therefore, each investigation will focus on different areas. If you were a victim of a purse snatching, you may be asked questions about the offender’s age, weight, height. If you were a victim of identity theft, you might be asked about your credit card activity and bank statements.


Extortion investigations would focus on the person or persons involved in the crime. Corporations and/or individuals, along with business activities, records and important documents, may be under investigation.

Photo Credit: MichaelGaida

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