When John Shea's neighbors go on vacation, they usually let him know, not because he's a police officer but because he goes out of his way to secure their homes while they're gone. He's even been known to park his second car in a neighbor's driveway, so casual or not-so-casual passers-by will think someone is home.
It's not surprising that many people are apprehensive about leaving their home empty for two weeks while they head off to the beaches, the Grand Canyon, or Disneyland. In 1978, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report listed more than 3 million burglaries in the United States -- the largest number of which occurred during the summer months, according to Ben Gorda of the National Sheriff's Association. Numbers for 1979 have yet to be released, but one FBI source says preliminary figures indicate an increase of 6 percent.
For some the vacation solution is finding a "house sitter." But Officer Shea says even those who can't do this can find other ways to protect their home while they're away, by "just generally using common sense.
"The most important thing is to make the house look like it's live in," he says. "As a crime prevention officer, I drive around cities and towns, and often I can tell when people are away; there are obvious signs."
An unmowed lawn, piled up newspapers, an overstuff mailbox, are all dead giveaways, he says, as are shades pulled all the way down, or no light at night.
He suggests having a trusted neighbor keep an eye on the place, and the use of two or three timers to turn on lights in different parts of the house at night. He says it's also a good idea to notify the police, who can then occasionally swing by on patrol to make sure all is well.
"The real key is to work with your neighbors, and to rely on them. They can watch out for your property and you can watch out for theirs."
A checklist put out by the National Sherriff's Association also includes such hints as turning the telephone volume control down so the phone cannot be heard from the outside, putting valuables in a bank safety-deposit vault, fixing broken windows and door locks, and making sure all sliding glass doors are shut, and that the "charlie bar" is secure.
It also recommends that all ladders, tools, and lawn furniture be stored in a garage, basement, or storage shed, but Ben Gorda doesn't totally agree.
"I think most lawn furniture is relatively inexpensive, and if it's left out it might give the impression that someone is there."
Ideally, one might find a neighborhood such as the one in Chelmsford, Mass., where the neighbors simply keep an eye on each other's homes. One woman reports that when their family went on vacation her next door neighbor was particularly diligent.
In addition to adjusting the timers so lights would go on in different rooms at different times, the neighbor even occasionally left the bathroom light on all night.She also made a point of turning on the outside lights in the evening then having her teen-age son go over late at night to turn them off.
"She also came over and checked the house every day, opened some of the windows and adjusted the shades, she made sure the lawn was mowed, picked the ripe vegetables in the garden, watered the flowers, and picked up the mail. And a couple times she even turned on the lawn sprinkler, got a deck chair from the garage and sat in the driveway as if she owned the place."