Vacation-proof your home

Photo © mabe123

How can you make your home and property less attractive to criminals? Here’s what experts say we can do to thwart a break-in while you’re on vacation.

Deny access
Many break-ins are a crime of opportunity, meaning that often criminals will look elsewhere if you don’t provide an easy way in.

But where to start? Look to your home maintenance. According to experts, door and windows are usually the entry point for criminals, so do what you can to bar the way. Make sure they’re still in good shape with sturdy, strong frames that can’t be broken. Don’t forget that old trick of using a bar or sawed-off hockey stick to block a sliding door.

Make sure your locks are in good shape too. One inch deadbolts are ideal for doors, but those locks in doorknobs should be avoided because they’re too easy to tamper with.

Also, beware that your garage door is a convenience, not a security measure. Make sure the door inside gets the same treatment as other entrance ways to your home.

Make some noise
A home alarm system can also be a serious deterrent and can earn you a reduction on your insurance policy. A blaring alarm is bound to get some attention, if not alert the authorities.

If you’re looking for a quick fix, some sources recommend heading to the hardware store for alarms you can install yourself. You can find both entry alarms, which sound when a window or door is opened, and motion-sensor alarms that sound if movement is detected inside. The products range from $20 – $50, and while they don’t have all the bells and whistles of a home alarm system they may be a cost-effective alternative.

Make a few cutbacks
Once you’re house is in good order, look to your landscaping. Large bushes and shrubs too close to the house make a good hiding place and can conceal illegal activities — unless, of course, they’re of the thorny and prickly variety.

Whatever the case, make sure your hedges and shrubs get a good trim before you go because over-growth is a sign no one’s there to tend them.

Lighten up
Criminals would prefer that your neighbours don’t see what they’re up to, and a well-lit house will also keep the crooks away. Make sure your property has sufficient lighting, both close to your home and the perimeter of your property.

Want to keep your energy costs down? Motion sensors will make sure the lights only come on when needed, and they’re sure to give a potential thief a nasty surprise. In addition, this year’s solar lights are brighter, and while they won’t offer the coverage of a flood light they will provide some illumination.

You turned off your appliances and maybe unplugged them too, but what about your internet and computer? In today’s electronic age criminals may not need to get into your house in order to glean personal information that can be used to steal your identity.

The way in: Your internet connection and computer. The way to stop it: disconnect. Unplug any LAN cables (the cable that connects your modem to your computer) and unplug your wireless router or modem if necessary.

Play hide and (don’t) seek
Can you see expensive electronics and equipment through the window? If so, experts warn you’re practically inviting criminals into your home. It’s best to keep these things out of sight to keep them out of mind as well.

If a burglar does get into your house, they’re looking for your jewellery, important financial documents, electronics and other valuables. However, they can’t steal what they can’t find. Consider removing these items from your home altogether if possible — to a safety deposit box or a trusted friend’s home, for instance — or invest in a fire-proof safe.

If you have to leave items at home, hide them somewhere other than the bedroom and office (where criminals tend to look first).

Go for the lived-in look
Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone had the right idea: make it look like someone is still living in your home, even if you don’t have a house sitter.

We’ve all heard the trick about putting lights on timers, but you can take this tactic even further by doing the same thing with your stereo and TV too. Unlike the movie, you don’t have to rig up elaborate contraptions — just generate some noise and light to keep people guessing. Have lights come on at different times in different places in your home, and let a talk radio station provide some conversation.

Another thing many people overlook: their blinds and drapes. Leave them in their normal (or close to normal) positions and resist the urge to shut your house up completely during the time you’re away.

One exception to the noise rule: Turn down the ringer on your phone so outsiders won’t hear that it’s not being answered.

Enlist help
There’s no substitute for some extra help, and it’s not only about keeping the plants watered. A trusted neighbour, friend or family member can keep an eye on your home for anything suspicious. Here are some things they can do to help:

– Watch for signs of a break-in, or any other problems around the house (like a leak you didn’t know about or a power outage that could destroy the food in your fridge).

– Collect your mail and recycle flyers and other junk mail that might pile up.

– Water your garden and mow your lawn so neglect won’t tip people off that you’re not home. (You can hire someone to look after this maintenance too.)

– Put a bag of garbage on your lawn on garbage day, and set out some recycling.

– If your go-to neighbour is expecting guests, offer your driveway as alternative parking if you’re on a road trip.

Make sure to leave an emergency number where you can be reached — just in case.

Be anonymous
Because so much information is readily available, experts also recommend that we keep some key details to ourselves. One of the biggest no-nos is displaying your name on your mailbox or on a decoration in your yard. This personal touch can lead resourceful criminals right to you.

Another technology issue: the answering machine. Regardless of whether you’re home or not, the safest message is a generic one that simply says you can’t come to the phone. Don’t give your name on the message, and never say you’re away from home or when you’ll be returning.

Keep your plans to yourself
Naturally, you want to share your travels with your friends and family, and with social networking sites, blogging and Twitter it’s easy to keep everyone up-to-date (and riddled with envy).

However, you don’t always know who’s watching and any information you reveal can be paired with other data that’s easily accessible online (like your address). Counting down the days until your vacation, posting about your activities while you’re away and sharing photos may seem like harmless activities, but they could put you at risk.

And it isn’t just the online world you have to worry about. Avoid discussing your plans in public places or at the office where anyone can overhear.

The bottom line: Only tell people you trust that you’re going away. You may be excited about your trip, but it’s safer to tell people about it after you’ve returned.

Sources: TD Insurance, Reuters, The Insurance Information Institute, Toronto Police Service