This summer, as HOA residents make plans to hit the shore or go visit relatives in faraway states, it's important to remember one thing as bags are packed and camping supplies loaded into the family car: Thieves never go on vacation. Summertime means long absences from home for many New Jersey residents, and that makes it an especially active time for thieves and other miscreants.
According to statistics provided by police departments across the state, the rate of thefts and burglaries increases significantly during July and August. "The thieves are just waiting for the right opportunity," says Detective Frank Prato of the Hamilton Police Department in Mercer County, adding that the key to coming home to an intact house is removing those opportunities and exercising some common sense.
First Steps in Security
There are plenty of ways to keep crooks at bay—some very simple, others more involved. If your community can make a concerted effort to police itself, and can establish a close relationship with local law enforcement, you're halfway there already.
"Developing a community watch program with your local police department is a great way to go," says Prato. He explains that in his district, he and a resident developed a neighborhood watch program that now includes over 600 members who meet once a month to discuss the best ways to protect the community and develop a better understanding of their surrounding neighborhoods. These meetings also offer a forum for residents to notify their fellow members of vacation plans.
"These programs work," Prato continues. "For example, there is another police officer who lives on my street. Last year, we had a number of car burglaries—even my car was broken into—so we got together as a neighborhood and decided to keep our outside lights on all night. We used low watt bulbs to save money—and you know what, there hasn't been a break-in since."
By nature, thieves are for the most part shrewd and deceptive, which means homeowners must be equally shrewd and rely on foresight rather than hindsight when it comes to protecting themselves and their property.
Most security professionals recommend developing a friendship with neighbors so as they know your routine, know the cars that you drive, and the company you usually keep, including friends and family that are accustomed to stopping by regularly.
"Our recommendation is that you notify your neighbors, because they know your daily routine," says Frank Seggio of MPG Communications, a security firm based in Asbury Park. For those homeowners skeptical of telling their management companies about upcoming travel plans for fear they might leak the information to outside sources, Seggio says that the most important thing is to notify someone you trust.
"Some people feel that if you tell the Super about your plans, the word gets out that you're not around," says Seggio, "but again, telling a trusted neighbor is the best way because they can keep an eye out."
Other Security Tips
While notifying your neighbors or a trusted property manager is definitely beneficial, the best way to prevent theft is not to advertise your absence to the entire neighborhood. "You have to create the appearance that the house is occupied and not a target," says Tony Frusco, director of operations for the Red Bank based Marion Security Agency.
Frusco says that you can make your home look lived-in by either having your mail picked up by a trusted neighbor, or by having it held at the post office. Other simple precautions might include:
• Arranging for a neighbor to park in your driveway while you're away
• Canceling any regular deliveries, such as the newspaper
• Using timers on some indoor lights and having a neighbor come in and change the settings every few days
• Arranging for someone to cut your grass while you are away
• Advising your security monitoring company that you will be away, when you'll be back, and who to call in the event of a break-in.
• Security industry professionals encourage homeowners to suspend deliveries of mail and newspapers because overflowing mailboxes or a driveway full of newspapers is the equivalent of posting a sign saying, "Come on in, we're not home!"
"I can't tell you how many times we've been called to a house on a burglary report and pull into the driveway and see 20 old newspapers sitting in the driveway," says Prato. "You have to have common sense, and some people just don't."
Other tips include trimming hedges and bushes so criminals can't use them for cover in the dark of night. Putting interior and front porch lights on timers that replicate the usual daily schedule often send the message to thieves that they should move along. "Lighting is an important thing to remember, because no thief wants to be seen," says Prato.
If You See Something, Say Something
Prato also suggests notifying your local police department or precinct of your travel plans, in addition to telling a neighbor or property manager. "We're here to help," he says, "but we can only do so much. That's why it's so important for the community to support the police department and act as more eyes and ears."
In some cases, Prato explains that neighbors will notice something out of the ordinary at a fellow association member's home, but neglect to call the police department until the next day - which more often than not means the difference between stopping the act and doing damage control after the fact. "Never wait to call the police if you feel something is wrong," says Prato, "because tomorrow is always too late."
Technology Equals Safety
While simple precautions and cooperation between residents and neighbors go a long way toward preventing break-ins and property loss, covering all the bases to burglar-proofing your home might include high-tech devices to help fend off intruders. Home security systems can give residents peace of mind - and there is a plethora of options available for just about any budget.
"Home alarm systems vary, and they can be expensive," says Frusco, "but it identifies a house as protected, or as not an easy target."
Frusco explains that the equipment itself is not that expensive for most security systems—it's the contracts with the security company that can be costly. However, he says that there are lower-tech options, such as installing outdoor sensor lights, that are proven crime stoppers. Another trick that he says many homeowners employ is displaying security signs on the property without actually having the service. "Think about it—if a burglar sees security signs, chances are that he won't break in," Frusco says.
Most people however, are more comfortable with putting up the cash for a real security system than they are with bluffing. Depending on the customer's needs and budget, their customized security system might include sensors on windows and doors that trigger surveillance cameras that capture the crime on tape. Newer cameras can run on battery power in the event a criminal tries to cut the electricity, and many can be linked to a security system operations center and the police department.
"Security systems are only as good as the money you spend on them," says Prato. "I like video systems because they offer protection and can catch a criminal in the act."
According to Seggio, video monitoring is also being tied into cable service. These systems allow a condominium community or association to pay for a service that allows them to have security cameras around their property in questionable areas like the laundry room and parking lots. "These days you can tie security into your cable service and have a dedicated channel for the community, and it's fairly inexpensive," says Seggio.
Another new cool feature is notification through a cell phone. Frusco explains this new technology allows a homeowner to be notified along with the police and the security company if their home security system alarm is triggered. "This way if a window is broken, you know it no matter where you are," he says.
So as you're planning your long-awaited summer getaway in the next couple of months, it might pay off to factor in some time to think about what steps you'll take to secure your home and valuables while you're away. Whether you have an entire new, state-of-the-art security system installed, or just suspend your Sunday paper delivery and have the neighbor kid mow the grass on weekends depends on your individual circumstances and your budget. Either way, it's important to plan ahead and protect yourself - because thieves don't go on vacation.
W.B. King is a freelance writer living in Westchester County, N.Y.