Des Conway has over 20 years' experience in police and commercial security. He uses his additional research and commercial security experience to ensure his own and his family's safety while planning and taking holiday and business trips. Through this and his other security handbooks he is committed to helping people keep themselves and their loved ones safe, wherever they are.
With your preparations completed, you are ready to travel and that brings a whole new list of issues for you to consider. Some relate to security, some relate to health and some potentially relate to the difference between being alive or dead.
Most people go away for a few weeks on holiday each year. When you are away. and your house is unattended, it is vulnerable. In the excitement of planning your holiday remember that there are some basic precautions you should take.
In everything you do, remember that you are planning to be away between given dates. Packages waiting on doorsteps are tempting to a casual thief, as well as advertising to a whole range of people that you are not at home and may not be around for a few days.
No matter what the excuse, never ever leave a note on the door. Notes such as ‘Milkman – we are on holiday – no milk until 18th August’ or perhaps ‘On holiday until 18th August ALL deliveries to Number 7 please’ are a gift to criminals. Remember, even a note saying ‘Gone to shops, back in five minutes’ may be enough to tempt a burglar.
Junk mail and circulars
Your letterbox and front step are important areas in maintaining your security. For a few weeks before your departure keep an eye on what is delivered. Not just the usual post and milk. It is the ‘unwanted deliveries’ that could be a problem. Free newspapers, circulars, flyers and pizza advertisements are often just dumped on the doorstep. Unfortunately, these are the deliveries that can cause you problems.
If not collected and disposed of, within a few days they could overflow your letterbox and doorstep, cascading out to blow around the garden for all to see. That is a very clear indication to everyone that you are not at home. By the time the doorstep is stacked up with this rubbish you clearly haven’t been there for some days, which will attract the attention of the local criminals.
Make sure that though you have carefully managed and cancelled all deliveries. these free deliveries don’t spoil all your good work. Where possible get somebody to check the property each day. and if possible spend a few hours there, to make the place look ‘lived in’. Remember to ask them to make absolutely sure that they secure the house when they leave though!
If you are going on a winter holiday you may have to leave your heating on, so that the water pipes are protected from frost damage. A low setting will not use too much fuel, but it will prevent the pipes from freezing and keep the house safe and comfortable for your return.
Lights on timers
While away, try to make the house look as occupied and lived in as possible. Any action you can take to make it appear as though somebody is around will be an extra deterrent to a criminal who could be considering attacking your house.
A number of manufacturers supply electrical timers. They plug into an electrical socket and you can plug a light or other device into them. The timers then work off the electricity and at set times programmed by you they will switch the device plugged into them on and off. So you can make a light come on and go off at times you have set.
The better electrical timers have a battery backup function. Without the battery. in a power cut the timer could lose its programmed operation and stop working, or carry on working with a clock that was running a few hours late. That could make lights go off and on in the early hours of the morning, which would attract the attention of criminals rather than put them off.
Radio talk stations
Just as the timer lights give the illusion of occupancy, leaving a radio on could help your illusion, depending on how you use it. I put a radio onto one of the timer switches, and arrange for the radio to be tuned to a talk station. Music stations are OK, but an intruder won’t believe current pop stars are staying at your house if he hears their music. On the other hand, if you tune the radio to a talk station, all he will be able to hear from the outside is muffled voices, from which he cannot be sure if there are actually people in the house talking.
The basic security of your house and the added uncertainty of the muffled voices should be enough to make him look for an easier and safer target down the road.
Don’t forget that your garden can tell tales on you too. An uncut and overgrown lawn is very obvious to anyone passing by. Wilting hanging baskets or weed-infested flowerbeds give the criminals more indications that nobody is home. If you usually trim the hedge every Sunday and then suddenly it is left to grow for two weeks in August, it will be noticed.
The garden-based evidence alone can point to a family on holiday. Add the extra information about the lack of activity in the house, the milkman doesn’t stop there any more, there aren’t any kids playing in the garden, and you begin to see that it is quite difficult to hide your absence from anyone who regularly passes by. It might take them ten days to notice, but eventually the evidence builds up to the inescapable conclusion that you are away and the house is empty
When making your arrangements, don’t forget the dustman. Here is another task for that visiting relative or friendly neighbour. In the first week you will have rubbish in your bin that you don’t want to leave to decompose and rot for the time you are away. Neither do you want a passing criminal to notice and investigate why all the neighbours in the street have put their dustbins out – but not you!
Arrange for somebody to put the dustbin out and take it in when it has been emptied. In the first week all will then appear to be normal to the passing burglar. In the second and any subsequent weeks, ask the visitor to bring a few bags of rubbish, put them in your bin and put it out for collection as normal. This should maintain another little bit of the illusion that somebody is still at home and that the house is not empty.
Remember these things may be minor, but every single action helps to build on the illusion that you are still at home.
Pets have to be considered when taking a holiday, and while some people are happy to bear the cost of putting their dog or cat in a boarding kennel, others arrange for a house sitter to take care of the house and their pets. This has the double benefit of keeping the house lived in and secure, as well as keeping the pets at home in familiar surroundings. Boarding and kennel rates of £9 to £12 per day for a large dog and £6 per day for a cat are not uncommon and certainly not the most expensive. Individually they don’t seem too high, but when some kennels charge extra for insurance, heated accommodation and special diets the price soon adds up. The cost of boarding a family dog or cat while you are away on a holiday could quite easily reach £250.
When the cost can be as high or higher than that, inviting somebody to stay at your house begins to make sense. You will however have to ensure that they are trustworthy and will maintain your security standards while you are away. It is pointless making your house secure, if for two weeks of the year your nephew Trevor Biggins leaves doors and windows open, holds open house parties and can’t quite get the hang of not leaving the keys in your car!
Create an illusion of activity
There are some things that can be done to add to the illusion of life and activity at your empty home. I have given a couple of examples below. Knowing your own home, family and personal circumstances, see if you can add a few illusions of your own.
Think security in everything you do. Don’t make a big thing out of leaving for the airport. It is pointless taking all of these security steps to make people think you are still at home, if you make so much noise and fuss about leaving that half the county can’t help knowing that you have gone to the airport with three large suitcases. If Uncle George is taking you to the airport, get him to reverse up to the house and slip the cases into the boot. If you are going in a taxi, try to arrange for a time when there won’t be a big audience watching you. If everyone drives past your house on the way to work between 8 and 9 in the morning, try to arrange for the taxi to collect you before 8 or after 9. That way fewer people will see you leave with your obvious holiday cases.
Long holidays and business trips
There are ways of covering up a holiday that lasts a couple of weeks, but longer holidays and long business trips present some unique problems and are harder to hide.
As a police officer I was called to a house that had been burgled and heavily vandalised. It was a detached house set in a large garden, and the owners were on a six-month business trip to the USA. They had taken some holiday countermeasures to disguise their absence but that wasn’t enough. Unfortunately they hadn’t identified the new problems presented by an extended absence. When they had been gone a couple of months, louts noticed that the house was clearly unoccupied, broke in. stole some property and then stayed to trash the place. Toilets and basins were broken, taps were left on, paint thrown around and doors ripped off their hinges. The television was smashed and china and glassware was broken and thrown all over the house. The final bill for damage and loss ran into thousands of pounds.
Standing on the road outside the house the signs and evidence that it was empty were clear and easy to see. For example;
- Tall weeds had grown up through the drive and around gates. It was obvious that nobody was using the drive. Car wheels and people’s feet weren’t knocking weeds down and killing them. Gates were not being opened. sweeping weeds aside.
- It was late spring going into early summer. Bushes in the trout garden had grown quickly, partly blocking the front path, the lounge windows and the front door step
- Ivy that was growing up the side of the house had started growing across the living room window, a blatant sign that nobody was caring for the house.
- A telephone directory had been delivered and left on the front door step, but spring ram had partly turned it into paper mulch.
- The front windows, front door and doorstep were all dirty and dusty. Even an untrained eye could clearly see that footprints in the dirt on the front step showed where a male (postman) had stood on the step then left. The footprints clearlv showed that nobody had come out of the house.
Overall the impression was of an unloved and unused house. It didn’t take a master detective to read the clues. Even the local louts couldn’t fail to notice – and unfortunately for the homeowner, they didn’t.
For your peace of mind more than anything else, define a routine for closing the house while you are away. You already know that you have to cancel the milk, cut the grass, arrange for deliveries to be made before you go, etc., but look beyond that.
You don’t want to get to the airport or be sitting in the Andes Mountains worrying about household security. Think of the stress you would suffer if you couldn’t quite remember if you had turned off the kitchen tap when you had a glass of water before you left, or if anyone ever actually shut the back door when Uncle George arrived to take you to the airport.
Define a procedure, list or method that will take you from room to room, to secure the house, switch on the electric timers that will operate lights and the radio, close the bedroom windows, lock the side gate, etc.
If you do that, and then follow that procedure or list in good time before your transport arrives, you should be able to avoid those nagging worries and enjoy your holiday.