(Real Simple) -- There's a burglary every 15 seconds in the United States -- and more than 6 million home break-ins every year.
Burglars know the usual places people hide keys or valuables.
The good news: Your house doesn't have to be one of them. There's plenty you can do, experts say, to make it tougher for housebreakers to make off with your hard-earned, perhaps irreplaceable stuff.
What to do inside your home
A few smart moves within the house can keep a burglar out -- or at least minimize his haul.
Put lights and a radio or a television on timers. People who leave the lights on all day "might as well put out a sign in their front yard saying they're out of town," says Ann Lindstrom of ADT Security Services, the nation's oldest alarm-system company. Look for the type of timer that can be set for random on and off times (one brand is Leviton, about $40 each). Otherwise, it's too easy for crooks to get wise to the fact that your lights are coming on at the same time every night.
Don't rely on your dog. You'd like to believe that your "vicious" golden retriever will scare off burglars. And though barking may persuade them to skip your house, you shouldn't count on it. "Most of us train dogs to be friendly to strangers," says Frank Santamorena, an expert for the Discovery Channel's burglary-prevention show, "It Takes a Thief." Some thieves even bring dog biscuits.
Close most shades. If a thief can't see inside, he won't know whether there's anything worth stealing, says Lauren Russ, executive director of the nonprofit Burglary Prevention Council (BPC). But keep a few shades open on the second floor to make it look as if someone is home.
Lock up valuables. It may sound obvious, but thieves know we all like to hide our most important things under the bed, in a coffee tin, or behind a bookcase. So keep passports, Social Security cards, and the like in a bank safe-deposit box or in a heavy-duty combination safe you can bolt to the floor in a closet. Santamorena likes the Gardall brand (from about $300, depending on size).
Keep two jewelry boxes. Store inexpensive pieces in the nice case on your dresser. Stash the good bits in a safe. A thief may be fooled by the "cheap box" and not bother looking for more.
Lock away guns. Weapons are attractive to thieves, so if you have them in the house, hide them in a safe, just as you would conceal other valuables.
Make your stuff harder to sell. Use an engraving pen (sold at hardware stores) to mark big-ticket items, like electronics and computers. Prominently engrave your initials and driver's-license number (not your Social Security number) on the back. Since many pawnshops won't accept ID-engraved items or are required by law to report them to the police, burglars may pass on them. At the very least, you'll have a better chance of recovering them.
Get an alarm system. A recent survey by Temple University researchers found that alarms, when used in combination with other precautions, reduce the likelihood of burglary by as much as 66 percent.
All monitored electronic-security systems operate through phone lines. More recent types have backup service that uses cellular technology or digital radio, so if the line is cut or the power goes out, you're still protected. This can add a few hundred dollars to the bill, but experts say it's a must. Expect to pay at least $350 for installation and $35 a month in monitoring fees.
What to do outside your home
A thief usually assesses your house from the street first. Take these steps and he'll avoid yours.
Evaluate the landscaping. Is that lovely flowering dogwood a good hiding spot for someone jimmying open a ground-floor window? "Prune back shrubbery from windows, doors, and walkways," says Russ. Also, she adds, "examine the 'climbability' of tall trees near second-floor windows." Prune these as well so burglars can't use them like ladders.
Check the lighting. Every exterior door should be illuminated with at least a 40-watt bulb. Experts recommend easy-to-install motion-detecting light sensors (about $20 each at home-improvement stores). "Thieves want anonymity," says Santamorena. "If a spotlight shines on them the second they step on your property, they'll keep moving." Random timers are also a good idea, especially if you typically arrive home after dark.
Secure windows and sliding glass doors. Look for windows made with laminated glass, which is not as breakable as tempered glass. Sliding glass doors are notoriously simple for thieves to get open, so put a metal bar or a solid-wood dowel in the tracking to secure the door when it's closed, says Terri Kelly, managing director of Community Outreach & Government Relations for the National Crime Prevention Council.
Install -- and use -- reliable locks. In about 32 percent of home burglaries, there's no sign of forced entry, meaning the burglar entered through an unlocked or open door or window. It takes most burglars less than 60 seconds to get inside, according to the BPC, and they typically enter through the front door.
For all exterior doors, plus the door inside the garage that leads into the house, choose high-quality dead bolts (such as ASSA Abloy, Medeco, or the Schlage Primus, which start at around $140). If the lock is near a window or within 40 inches of a glass pane, install a double-cylinder dead bolt, which can be opened from the inside and the outside only with a key. (This way, burglars can't break the glass, reach in, and turn the lock.) It's best to use a locksmith who is a certified dealer of the brand you want, says Santamorena. (To find a locksmith, visit the manufacturer's Web site.)
Fortify your doors. Exterior doors, including the garage door, should be solid wood, fiberglass, or steel, and the hinges should be on the inside, not the outside. If you do have exterior hinges and don't want to move them, Santamorena suggests that you at least secure them with a locking pin, which makes the hinges difficult to move.
Put your street number, not your name, on the mailbox to avoid what Kelly calls one of the oldest tricks in the book: "Thieves dial information with your name and street address, and then call to see if anyone's home." But make sure your house number is clearly marked so emergency personnel can find you.
Advertise an alarm system, even if you don't have one. While it's best to have the real deal, just posting a lawn sign or a sticker will help, says Russ. Try to get one from a friend or a neighbor who has an alarm; experienced thieves can spot a fake.
Declutter the yard. When you're out or away, don't leave tools, ladders, or even toys lying around. Thieves can use them to break into your house.
Forget the fake rock and other hide-a-key tricks. Thieves know all the hiding spots you've thought of.
"You can't fool a burglar by putting a key above the doorjamb, under the doormat, or beneath a plastic figurine in your yard," says Santamorena.
Give a spare key to a trusted neighbor, or buy a steel combination lockbox made specifically for keys. (One model is the GE AccessPoint KeySafe, from $40.) Bolt it to something on the property that is easy for everyone in your family to access. "These lockboxes are so reliable that I've installed them right next to a door," says Santamorena.
Don't leave your garage-door opener exposed. Burglars can swipe a garage-door opener from an unlocked car and use it later to get into the house.
Censor your trash. The box your new flat-screen TV came in announces that you have stuff worth stealing. "Cut the carton up and tie the pieces together before you put them out on the curb," says Russ.
What to do when you go on vacation
Make sure you can really relax on your next getaway by taking these extra safety precautions.
Enlist a trusted neighbor or family member to keep an eye out, park a car in your driveway, and have the lawn mowed or the walks shoveled. The fewer clues you give that your house is vacant, the better.
Don't leave e-mail or phone messages saying you're away. Forgo the "automatic vacation reply" feature on e-mail and keep a generic message on your answering machine. Use call forwarding to screen phone calls from the road.
Suspend delivery of newspapers and mail, or have someone collect them for you. Avoid telltale pileups. To a thief, they're an open-house invitation. E-mail to a friend
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