Is your home safe?

It's the season for going on vacations.

But while you're planning ahead for everything you'll need while you are away, don't forget to prepare your home before you go.

Otherwise, you could leave your house a sitting duck for burglars.

"Burglars are typically young guys looking for easy access to cash or items they can sell for cash," says John Ford of Charleston, who was in the home-security business for several years before retiring two years ago. "They might drive through the neighborhood looking for houses where people are away, so you don't want to leave behind any obvious signs."

According to the FBI, a burglary, a nonconfrontational property crime, happens in the United States about every 15 seconds, with July and August the busiest months.

In fact, it's such a big business that from 2005 to 2007 the Discovery Channel had a popular show called "It Takes a Thief," during which two former thieves broke into houses on camera, then gave the homeowners lessons in how to prevent such a violation from occurring again. The Discovery Channel Web site ( still offers tips and quizzes to avoid a break-in.

"Even though burglars usually strike when people aren't home, finding out that your house has been burglarized can leave you feeling really violated," Ford says.

Ann Vincent of Mount Pleasant knows that feeling. Her family once came home from a vacation to find they'd had an unwanted visitor.

"Somebody broke into our shed and took some tools and a couple of bikes," she says. "They didn't go into our house, but for a long time after that, I felt really uncomfortable that someone had been there."

To make sure you don't find yourself in this situation, there are several things you can do before leaving on vacation.

Some tips are no-brainers such as making sure your windows and doors are locked, but some are things you might not think of.

For instance, when you leave, you should close your curtains, but not so tightly that it's obvious your house is shut up. Some people advise leaving curtains open on a second-story room so it looks like someone is home.

You also should inspect the outside of your house to see if there is anything that could make a burglar's job easier. For instance, if you store ladders or tools outside, that is almost an invitation, Ford says.

State Farm Insurance offers the following suggestions, too:

--Unplug TVs, computers and appliances susceptible to lightning and power surges. This also saves electricity.

--Take jewelry and valuable papers to a safe-deposit box.

--Turn off water valves to your washing machine, icemaker and dishwasher.

Ford suggests leaving random lights on timers, but warns that leaving garage or porch lights on could be a giveaway that you are out of town.

"Lights in the house should be on during the same hours they would be on if you were home," he says. "There's no reason to have them on all night if you don't typically leave lights on all night. Also, they should go on and off at different times in different rooms."

--To keep passers-by from knowing that no one is home, you should stop delivery of your mail and newspaper while you are gone.

"A pile of yellowing paper on your doorstep is a red flag to the bad guy," Ford says.

If you have a spare key hidden outside your house, remove it while you are gone, he says. Thieves know the common hiding places and will look to see if they get lucky.

Instead, leave a key with a trusted family member or friend. Ask them to stop by once or twice while you are gone. Suggest that they walk around the house before going inside to make sure there are no signs of trouble and that they collect any fliers that may have been left on your mailbox or front door.

Also, leave your itinerary with someone so you can be reached in case of an emergency.

"One time, our neighbors were away and we saw some water in their driveway," says Wendy Ferguson of Summerville. "We knew they had a leak in their house, but we didn't know how to get in touch with them, and we didn't have a key. We wound up breaking a window to get in ... their water heater had sprung a leak."

If you're going to be gone for more than a week, arrange for normal services, such as trash pickup and lawn mowing, to continue in your absence.

If you have a security system, notify the company that you will be away. Contact your police department and ask if they will drive by your house.

"Of course, the best thing is to have someone house sit, but many people either aren't comfortable with that or can't make those arrangements," Ford says. "Instead, do these things and you have at least done all you can to keep your house safe."

Keeping safe

The following "Vacation Security Checklist" is from the Charleston Police Department's Crime Prevention booklet:

--Thieves look for "targets of opportunity." There are many things you can do to avoid becoming a victim when you are going to be away. Mainly, try to give the illusion you are home.

--Call your local police department and ask if it has a "Keep-a-Check" list. If so, have your house placed on the list.

--Have deadbolt locks installed on all exterior doors.

--Keep an inventory list and photos of all serial numbered items and engrave them with your driver's license number to help get them back.

--Double-check ALL windows and doors (basements, bathrooms, kitchens).

--Leave a car in the driveway if possible.

--Use timers for exterior AND interior lights.

--Tell a trusted neighbor about plans, leave emergency contacts and a key. Ask him to check the house and call police if he sees people around.

--Limit how many people you tell of your plans. Word may spread.

--Put a hold on newspapers and mail, or at least ask the neighbor to bring them in for you. If leaving for a week, have him put the trash can out. Not putting out the trash is an obvious marker that you are gone.

--Upon returning, walk around the house once to look for any signs of a break-in. You don't want to walk into a crime-in-progress. If you see something open or broken, go next door and call the police.