It's summer vacation season. The kids are almost out of school, and for many people, it's time to head for the beach or the woods. Even those families choosing a "staycation" probably plan to spend some of their time away from home.
The downside to being on vacation is that it leaves your home and property more vulnerable to burglars and thieves.
You may have done all the usual things to protect your home before you leave — put the lights on timers, cancel the newspaper — but you may also unwittingly put yourself at risk by overusing social media.
Loose lips sink ships
Announcing travel plans to your friends on Facebook or updating your Foursquare location tells potential robbers one important thing — your home is sitting empty.
It's one thing to tell your best friend that you're heading to the Caribbean for a week. It's totally different to say the same thing to all your Twitter followers.
"Tweeting about location, out of town or otherwise, gives criminals valuable information. It lets them know that you are not at home, so your home may potentially be empty and ripe for a burglary," said Steve Schwartz, executive vice president of consumer services with Intersections Inc., a Chantilly, Va., identity theft and risk management solutions company. "It also tells them how far from home you are, giving them an idea how much time they have to perpetrate a crime."
Although you may feel you've got more control over your information on Facebook, it's important to remember that privacy and security settings change daily, said Sarah Carter, vice president of marketing with Belmont, Calif.'s, Actiance, which provides communications platforms.
"Remember, nothing you post online is completely private," Carter said. "Telling every one of your Facebook friends you'll be in Hawaii for a week only invites real-life problems. Wait until you've returned home to share vacation information online."
Plus, Carter added, it's best to refrain from posting pictures of the trip from your smartphone.
"It can be tempting to share vacation photos and videos in real-time with family and friends, but doing so can also broadcast to the world exactly where you're not — at home," she said. "And that can become a safety and security issue."
Carter also recommended caution when using location-based social media, such as Foursquare.
"Location-based social media has become extremely popular; however, security controls and settings really have not kept pace with that surge in popularity," Carter said. "People need to keep in mind that when they 'check in' at a hotel in Aruba, for example, they're not only telling their family, they are also telling their social media 'friends,' and that is a much wider group of people than we tend to think about."
For those who still feel the need to use social media while they're away, Carter said the most important thing one can do is regularly check and update privacy settings to help control who sees the posts.
Appearance is almost everything
With regard to physical security tips, Robert Siciliano, security expert with ADT Security Services of Boca Raton, Fla., recommended talking to local law enforcement before leaving home.
"Most communities have programs in place where a law enforcement officer will inspect a personal home or apartment and make recommendations based on exiting vulnerabilities," he said. "Generally they will make those recommendations within your budget upon request."
Talk to trusted neighbors as well. While you don't want to let everyone in town know you'll have an empty house, it's good to have someone in the neighborhood who will keep an eye on things.
"Ask a neighbor to push in any other mail such as free newspapers and leaflets," said Melina Martinez, director of sales and marketing with Boston security company SimpliSafe Inc. "If you have a porch, ask neighbors to collect mail so it is not visible from outside."
Neighbors can also check to see if there is any unusual activity around your home.
Surprisingly, some experts recommend not stopping mail service or newspaper delivery.
"Law enforcement agencies recommend having someone pick it up your newspaper or mail daily, or on a consistent manner," said Chantay Bridges, senior real estate specialist with Clear Choice Realty & Associates in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Stopping routines is alerting to thieves [that] you may not be home. You never know who is employed there [at the newspaper or post office] and is seeking out such information."
Other tips to better protect your home while on vacation:
— Make sure all the door locks are working properly, and then double check to make sure all of the doors are locked before leaving the property. Siciliano also suggested making sure windows are secured so they can only be raised a few inches.
— Make sure outbuildings on the property, such tool sheds or detached garages, are also locked and secured.
"Tools in the shed could be used against you: for example, a hammer could be used to break glass, or a spade could be used to lever open a window,” said Martinez.
She added that ladders should be stored in a secure place. If a ladder must be stored outside, padlock it to the wall with special brackets.
— Trim hedges and bushes. Excessive foliage can screen burglars from the road or neighbors' views.
— Don't change voicemail or email reply messages to say that you are out of town.
— To give your home a lived-in look, ask a friend to park his car in your driveway, especially if that's where you are usually parked. Or ask someone to pet-sit at the house rather than take pets to the kennel. Bridges also suggests not only putting lights on timers, but using timers for music and television as well so that they mimic your normal routine.
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