Protect your home from break-ins while you're on vacation

keep you home secure this summerWith vacation season in full swing -- and your mind in vacation mode -- it's easy to forget that summer is also the season of the burglar. That's because as more and more people get out of town, leaving their houses unoccupied, criminals are gearing up for the easy pickings of their busy season.

Obviously, if your house is protected with an expensive burglar alarm system, you probably aren't too concerned. But for those of us who don't have that sort of protection and aren't willing to go to the trouble of getting it, we here at WalletPop thought we'd offer up some cheap ways for people to protect their houses while they're out of town. While some of these tips may be old hat for you, the idea is to offer a friendly reminder to take some time to institute these measures before heading out of town.

With that preamble out of the way, here we go.

Stop your mail. If you've never actually done this before, it isn't hard. Just drive over to a local post office branch, and fill out a card, stating which days you'll be out of town. The post office will hold your mail during that time, and you can either arrange to have it delivered when you get back or you can pick it up yourself when you 're back in town. Too much trouble? Have a friendly neighbor pick up your mail on a daily basis. The point is to have an empty mailbox, should anybody come by scoping out potential targets for a home burglary.

Stop your newspaper subscription. Granted, a lot of folks have stopped theirs permanently, opting to read the news strictly online, but for those of us who still get a paper, remember to call it and ask it to stop delivery while you're gone. When you have two or more newspapers pile up in the driveway, it's like putting up a sign that says, "Please rob me." Speaking of which...

Don't tell all your Facebook and Twitter friends that you're about to go on vacation.Seriously, don't. While I'm sure most of your friends and family and colleagues are unlikely to look at your departure as an opportunity to shop for a new TV, you never really know who they might mention it to. Is there a black sheep in your family who might hear about your vacation from a cousin and suddenly see your departure as his lucky day? What if a shady former high school classmate hears about your two-week vacation to Europe from a mutual friend and decides it's high time he checked out your place and took a few souvenirs.

I know it's tough not to post those vacation photos on Facebook as they're happening, and to complain about the airline food on Twitter, because lately we all seem to be hard-wired to share every minor detail of our lives with our friends and family. In this case, keeping your mouth shut until after you get back is an easy and inexpensive way to protect your home.

Have your neighbors park in your driveway. You're at war with the enemy -- burglars -- and by having a car in the driveway, you might fool them into thinking someone's home. Especially if you ask your neighbor to move the car from time to time. And offer to return the favor when your neighbors are away.

Keep some of the lights on. Keeping a few lights on can discourage any criminals looking for a "sure thing." If they don't know for sure if you're home or not, they'll be likely to skip your house and move on to easier pickings. If you don't want to leave even a few lights on the whole time you're gone, you can buy a timer for around $10. Timers can obviously help give the impression to any outside lurkers that someone is there, with the lights going on and off at various times throughout your trip.

Call the police. In smaller cities and towns, you can tell the police you're going on vacation and they'll drive by occasionally, keeping their eyes open for prowlers or any other suspicious activity. It's like having free security. Really, you can't beat that.

Have people stay at your home. House sitting is obviously the best way to keep burglars away. I guess I really needn't say any more here about the benefit of decoys. And along those lines...

Encourage as much action around your home as possible. So if you have a landscaping service, or a lawn guy, don't cancel their services while you're out of town. If nothing else, an unkempt lawn can be a red flag to burglars that a family is away (although in my case, it's just a sign that my lawn mower is broken).

Go for the lived-in look, as in really lived-in. I mentioned decoys earlier. Well, there's no better decoy than outdoor toys or children's bicycles and tricycles in the front and back yards, placed strategically throughout the yard, as though they were left there by the children just before being called to dinner. After all, don't most people, before going on a vacation, usually tidy up their yards? You might also string up some shirts on the backyard clothesline for good measure -- who would leave clothes on a line before heading out somewhere for a weekend getaway or a week's vacation?

Trust me -- it can work. About thirty years ago, when I was a kid, some family friends experienced a devastating house fire while they were on vacation. They had inadvertently left a lot of toys out in their yard, and some well-intentioned passer-by, seeing the flames and the toys in the yard, immediately made the connection that a family might be trapped inside. He raced into the house to try to save the family, who were another state away, enjoying all that Lake Michigan has to offer, but I'm happy to report, he managed to escape with his life intact.

Chances are, if that ploy worked once, the lived-in, messy yard look will work for others unfamiliar with your home.

Have you tried or considered any of the above? We'd like to hear how these ideas worked for you -- or whether you have other tips that can help vacation-goers feel more secure about leaving home.

Geoff Williams is a regular contributor at WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit.
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