- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Vacation-bound families make the obvious preparations to protect their homes in their absence. They halt mail delivery, have a friend keep the lawn in check and alert neighbors to watch the property.
Too many, though, forget the most basic protective measures for their homes, such as setting their burglar alarms, says Kate Buchanan, a District-based personal insurance manager with the Chubbs Group of Insurance Cos.
Ms. Buchanan's observations underscore just one of the tasks homeowners must shoulder before leaving for vacation. They also must consider house maintenance, alarm devices and even strangers who may glean clues about their uninhabited home before they can relax on the beach.
Common sense dictates a variety of precautions such as stopping
mail delivery and keeping valuables out of sight. Using burglar alarms to secure the homestead should be part of most people's home defenses, especially given their falling price tags, the experts say.
Keeping homes secure is a less expensive proposition than ever before, says Richard L. Soloway, chairman of Napco Security Systems in Amityville, N.Y.
"You can buy a [burglar alarm] system today for $100 that a few years ago would go for thousands," says Mr. Soloway, whose 30-year-old firm sells security equipment to companies nationwide.
A new item his company offers is IQ Profiler, a motion detector for the home or office that can distinguish between a harmless moving object and an intruder.
The devices retail for less than $100, and each contains a microprocessor with a 1,200-image library of innocuous images, from Mylar balloons to overhead fan blades, that the device compares against any new moving objects.
The IQ Profiler is roughly the size and shape of a computer mouse and can be mounted in the upper corner of a room.
House lights, televisions and radios can be put on timers to create an effective illusion that the homestead is bustling. Today's timers, Mr. Soloway says, are more flexible and less expensive than older models.
Neal Rawls, director of consulting for the Palladium Group, a West Palm Beach, Fla., security company, learned the importance of proper lighting straight from the source. "I arrested a burglar once years ago," he recalls. "He said the one thing that always caught his attention was the light on in the bathroom.
"You deflect the criminal," the ex-police officer adds. "He's still going to break into somewhere. He's going to take advantage of the easiest mark he can find, no matter what the situation is."
Suzanne McCoy Barr, communications manager for Lowe's Home Safety Council in Wilkesboro, N.C., recommends thinking the way a burglar might.
"Go outside the home and look at all the ways they can enter small openings, crawl spaces," Ms. McCoy Barr says. "Look for windows covered by bushes or shrubs, things that can hide an intruder."
To keep windows secure, homeowners can drill small holes at an angle in their interior window frames and place nails in the slots to prevent windows from being opened from the outside. The nails can be removed easily from the inside in case of a fire, she says.
Sliding glass doors provide easy access, so homeowners can insert a wooden bar or broomstick in the door's tracking slot to prevent it from being opened.
Doors with exterior hinges, she warns, can be dismantled in a matter of minutes. Even a tree limb that reaches near a second-story window can provide an entranceway for an athletic burglar.

Some home disasters cannot be prevented by the most sophisticated alarms or homemade security devices. "If you're going and leaving your home for three weeks or so, the pipes might burst the day you leave," Ms. Buchanan says. "It's our foremost cause of loss."
Her insurance group has seen claims for water damage jump as much as 30 percent over the past five years, she says, pointing to aging plumbing and skyrocketing repair costs that deter homeowners from fixing problems before they get out of hand.
Homeowners also should check with their insurance carriers to find out the limits on stolen or damaged valuables before they reach their vacation spot. Limits vary on household items, from art pieces to jewelry, she says, with the latter being among the biggest claim items.
Just become your home is vacant doesn't mean activity can't whirl around it while you're gone.
Mr. Rawls suggests having a neighbor park in your driveway on occasion. "Some neighborhoods have less available parking, anyway," he says.
Mr. Soloway suggests having a friend keep an eye on the exterior lights to make sure they do not burn out while the home sits empty. Shrubbery should be clipped short to ensure that intruders don't have any greenery to hide behind.
"Criminals hate it when there's light, noise and visibility," he says.

Some homeowners have furry anti-burglar devices already in place. Leaving a favorite pet home alone during vacations could stir up enough barking or meowing to make a burglar move on to the next target.
Debra Hollander, owner of Sit-a-Pet in Arlington, says her workers visit homes daily to make sure the pets are fed, watered and loved. Her service and others like it pitch in to the security cause by bringing in the mail and newspapers and taking smaller measures, such as adjusting lights and draperies.
"We do things that make the house look occupied," she says.
Even if a neighbor or pet sitter is visiting your home, leaving the key someplace outside the home is a mistake, Mr. Soloway says.
"Criminals know where the keys are hidden on the sill, above the door frame, under a brick," he says. "They'll find them."
Ensuring a safe vacation can start before the vacation even begins.
Mr. Rawls advises caution when discussing a pending vacation in public places.
"When you take a trip, don't broadcast it to everybody," he says. "Don't put it on your voice mail at the office; don't tell anybody you don't have to." One never knows who could be listening.
"Criminal elements do tend to frequent mass-transit systems," he says. "If somebody sees you with luggage and sees your address, they can see that your house is vacant. Be careful of the friendly stranger."
" 'Oh, leaving town? You travel a lot?' " he says they may ask. "If he takes a look at your name tag, you might tell him everything he needs to know to rob you."
Keeping track of all the decisions needed for a safe, secure vacation is daunting.
Mr. Rawls says one way to keep from forgetting is to make a checklist of security measures. "Checklists will make you have a lot more fun [on] vacation," he says.


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