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15 ways to make your home more secure

Your home may be your castle, but just how deep is the moat? Tighter security is always a concern, but you don't need a "panic room" to feel safe and sound at home, sweet home. All it takes is a little common sense and maybe some elbow grease. So here are 15 tips to make your home more secure:

1. Be your own burglar. Go outside and pretend you're a crook. How would you get in?

Repeat this exercise at night. What parts of the yard are dark or hidden enough to act as cover for an intruder? These are areas you want to eliminate or illuminate with outdoor lighting. If you don't want the lights on all the time, you can put them on a timer or install motion detectors.

Ask the experts. Local police are usually happy to examine your home and offer you tips for shoring up your defenses.

2. Network with neighbors. Believe it or not, that nosy woman across the street could be your "best weapon against crime," according to Jean F. O'Neil, director of research and evaluation for the National Crime Prevention Council. Informed neighbors who know each other and know who doesn't belong in an area can stop crime before it starts with a quick call to the cops. If you want a more structured setup, more than 90 percent of police departments will help you establish a Neighborhood Watch program, says O'Neil, and the groups are a proven crime deterrent.

3. Call the cops. If you see something that strikes you as odd, trust your instinct and dial 911. "If you see something you think is suspicious," says O'Neil, "it probably is."

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4. Create an illusion. Most felons want to come and go without anyone around. So make it look like someone is home. If you're away, put an incandescent lamp on a timer so that it goes on in the evening. (Skip the halogen lights, since they can be a fire hazard.) Leave on the TV or a radio. Turn down the ringer on the phone. An unanswered phone is a great advertisement that no one is around.

5. Lock and key. Forty percent of all successful break-ins happen without force, according to O'Neil. That means the door or window was unlocked or they had a key. Use the locks you have.

It's common sense to keep doors and windows closed and locked, but "the basics are the things that people mess up the most," says Seattle Police Officer Duane Fish. His department recently arrested two burglars with more than 100 break-ins between them. "Their primary method of getting into the home was an open door or window," Fish says.

When you move into a new place, make sure you get new locks. Don't hide keys outside. And, as much as you love your neighbors, friends and relatives, don't give them a key to your home, says Los Angeles Police Officer Jack Richter. "Nobody's going to be as careful with your property as you," he says.

6. Put on a peep show. Install a wide-angle peephole, and use it every time you open the door. Make sure it allows you to see all around your front door. Set up good lighting so that you can see visitors. If you have kids, consider installing a second hole at a lower height. And if you aren't expecting anyone, don't know the person on the other side of the door or can't see because your porch light has mysteriously "burned out," don't open it.

7. Hide the garage-door opener. When you go into the house, close the garage door and take the remote control with you. If he can open the garage door, a thief can "take bigger equipment or steal the car altogether," says Chicago Police Department Officer Raimond Ranne.

And if you're out for the day, especially in venues like office parks or movie theaters, keep your remote hidden, says Richter. An enterprising thief could get your home address from your auto registration or even from mail left in the car. Once a thief is in your garage, he can close the door and have time and privacy to break into your home.

And if you're going on vacation and leaving an empty house, you can deactivate the garage door opener and put a padlock through the tracks, effectively locking the door.

8. The doors. Outside doors need to be solid wood or metal, with hinges on the inside and deadbolts that extend at least 1½ inches to 2 inches into the frames. Secure a sliding door with a snugly fitting dowel in the track.

"I'm not a big fan of windows in the door, unless they are high enough that you can't reach the handle," says Fish. "French doors are the most difficult things to secure." Options: vertical deadbolts at the top and bottom of the doors. If you don't need the door as a fire exit, consider a double-barreled deadbolt, which has a key lock on both sides. Keep the key near the door but out of sight and reach from the outside. Otherwise, outfit the door with an alarm or motion sensor.

9. Get alarmed. Get a monitored security alarm. And you want one that rings at your home as well as at the monitoring station, says Philadelphia Police Corporal Jim Pauley. "You want the person to know there's a system. As a homeowner, you want them out of there."

10. Windows 2002. When it comes to ground floor windows, you might consider something stronger than the usual thumb locks, according to O'Neil. If you can afford a locksmith, you can get keyed window locks -- the kind that uses a deadbolt. Two warnings: always keep the key in the same place (near the window, but not visible from the outside) so you can find it in the dark in an emergency. This is a better option for first-story windows that you won't need as exits in a fire. And it's not a great idea in homes with kids or people with impaired dexterity, since they might not be able to remember where the key is in an emergency or be able to work the lock quickly if they need to escape a fire.

If you don't want to spring for a locksmith, you can drill a thin hole at a 45-degree angle in each window sash and drop a small-headed nail snugly in the opening, says O'Neil. Leave enough of the nail sticking up that you can pull it out easily in case of a fire. As with other window locks, you don't want to use them on windows you'll need for an exit -- or if you have people in the house who couldn't easily pull out the nail.

11. Lock up ladders. If you, or a neighbor, leave a ladder lying around, you're giving thieves an invitation to try the usually less-well-guarded upstairs windows. Either put ladders away or chain them securely to something heavy. If you're having work done on your home, treat windows near scaffolding as if they were on the ground floor for the duration of the project.

12. Super cuts. Trim bushes and trees so that all your doors and windows can be seen from the street. If thieves have no place to hide, your home becomes a less attractive target. And a mowed lawn or shoveled walkway is a sign that people are home.

13. Hide your toys. When you get that new 50-inch flat-screen TV, don't leave the box out at the curb for a week, says Ranne. Instead, take it just before the trash collectors come. Better still: carry it to a nearby dumpster.

14. Ssssshhhhh! You want to tell the world about the great deal you got on that two-week cruise to the Caymans, but save the crowing until you return. Otherwise, you might come home to an empty house. While your co-worker or postal carrier is probably totally trustworthy, you never know whom they'll tell, says Richter. Instead of putting the mail and newspaper on hold, arrange with a friend or relative to pick up newspapers and mail in your absence.

15. Look out for yourself. "Don't be paranoid, but have a general sense of what's going on around you," says Pauley. You might be mentally preoccupied with what's going on at work or with a family situation. But being aware of your physical surroundings is a great security habit, and a good lesson to teach your kids.

"Be aware of your lifestyle, what you're doing and who you are," says Richter. "Look at it from the outside, and do everything you can to minimize being a victim."

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

-- Posted: Sept. 4, 2002

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See Also
Protecting your home from disaster
Identity-theft victims must clean up the mess
8 calls to make if your identity is stolen
Financial advice glossary
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