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      5 Home Security Tips: Holiday Season Vacation Checklist

      As the weather turns colder, snowbirds are locking up their homes and heading off for a more pleasant clime. Others are flying across the country to visit loved ones for the holidays, or simply escape the stresses that culminate the day after Christmas.

      Whenever you choose to get away, your pre-trip preparations should include home-security measures, so you won't leave the family's most expensive possession -- your home -- vulnerable to burglars.

      A few simple steps can mitigate the risk of a break-in -- and a home insurance claim: Do everything possible to make yourself a lousy target for thieves. How? By following this list of five things to check before leaving home.

      Ask neighbors to be your eyes and ears

      Alerting neighbors to your vacation plans and asking them to watch your property is paramount. Essentially, that's the best advice for low-cost home protection.

      People who are retired or who do not work outside the home are often the best lookouts. They are familiar with what is normal for your street and can take note when a van appears in your driveway.

      Instruct neighbors to call police if they see any suspicious activity. It's also wise to give a trusted neighbor a spare key to your house. That's better than leaving a key under the mat. Don't attempt to hide your spare key, thinking no one else will find it - that's one of the key reasons why "effortless" break-ins happen.

      Secure all doors and windows

      Doors and windows provide the main entry points for thieves, so make sure they are secure.

      Using deadbolts and locks that are pick-resistant, drill-resistant and able to withstand substantial force, such as kicking. These kinds of locks should be installed on all doors that are outside entry points, including the door from the garage into your home.

      Exterior doors should be made of wood that is at least 1 ¾ inches thick, or should be clad in metal. Sliding glass doors require a dowel in the bottom track to keep the door from being pried open. Anti-lift devices can prevent anyone from lifting the glass up and out.

      Securing windows depends on the type of window installed. For example, double-hung sash windows, with upper and lower halves that move up and down in tracks, require a key-locking security sash lock. Casement windows that swing open can be secured by removing the crank handle from the window's opening mechanism. Glass doors and windows should be shatter-proof and break-resistant.

      Remember to check all locks before you leave. Always keep in mind that the best locks in the world can't protect you if you don't use them.

      Don't leave a burglar-friendly yard

      Most homeowners know that well-trimmed hedges and bushes deny burglars a key place to hide before breaking in. But it's also important for home security to prune low-hanging tree branches, which can give thieves access to the second floor.

      If you'll be gone for a long period, make sure someone mows the lawn regularly or shovels promptly after snowstorms. An untended yard is a sure giveaway that no one is home. Good exterior lighting also can keep thieves at bay. Some lights can be programmed to turn on at dusk and off at dawn, while others have motion sensors, so they'll turn on when someone walks by them.

      Lighting should be focused on the entry ways into your home. The general rule is that lights always make burglars nervous.

      Arm the alarm and alert the police

      A good home alarm can keep burglars out of your digs. Even security signs and stickers can be effective deterrents.

      But an actual alarm system might earn you a discount on your home insurance. As with locks, alarms are only good if you set it before you leave. So before you pack your bags, be certain your system is working.

      We suggest doing a monthly test, or even run it a few days leading up to your vacation. Make sure it is communicating with the monitoring service. Do not underestimate the value of a good alarm system.

      If you live in a small neighborhood that's easily patrollable, you might also want to alert the local police department about your vacation plans. Many law enforcement agencies have a "vacation check" program, especially in Massachusetts. Officers or volunteers will make random stops at your home and do a cursory check.

      Do sweat the little stuff

      Overlooking the little things can negate all of the home security steps already tackled. They are easily undermined if you leave your porch light on 24/7 and you don't have your mail and newspaper deliveries stopped while you are gone.

      A buildup of papers on the front stoop or a mailbox stuffed to the brim can be almost as bad as putting up a billboard telling thieves that no one is home. Plus, an overflowing mailbox attracts another type of criminal. It is also a gold mine for identity thieves.

      We also suggest that homeowners put a few interior lights on timers. They can give the appearance that someone is home - this is always a deterrent to break ins.

      Finally - for those who are home insurance (theft) policyholders - remember to keep valuables such as jewelry and important papers in a secure location. Don't leave them in plain sight, such as sitting on the desk in your home office, that on its own could be a cause for the insurers not to compensate you.