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REAL ESTATE

Beware These Danger Zones That an Alarm System Won't Cover

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looking into house at night

Think it can't happen to you? More than 1.7 million burglaries strike U.S. homes every year, with the bad guys stealing an average of $1,600 in electronics, jewelry, and other possessions you hold dear.

Yes, security systems are important in thwarting thieves, but they don't cover everything. You still need to be aware of your home's weak spots that criminals case out from afar.

Check out these danger zones where a few simple changes will safeguard your home and everything in it -- including you!

Your home's exterior appearance

An unmowed lawn in summertime. A walkway covered in pristine snow. A driveway devoid of vehicles. Letters overflowing from the mailbox.

"The first thing burglars hunt for is a house that looks vulnerable from the street," says Paul Cromwell, a professor of public affairs at the University of South Florida, who interviewed scores of burglars for his book " Breaking and Entering." "If your home appears to be empty, they'll consider it a target."

Have a trusted friend or neighbor collect your mail and maintain your home's exterior while you're away. Keep mum about your vacation on social media until your safe return (no emoji-laden "Finally, leaving for two weeks in Hawaii!!!" posts on Facebook, please). When you purchase expensive items or receive them as gifts, avoid leaving the evidence -- such as the box for your laptop or 90-inch LED-screen TV -- out in the open in your garbage area (where documents of interest to identity thieves should be shredded before being tossed).

Trim shrubbery so it looks neat and hovers below your windows so it can't serve as a burglar's hiding place or makeshift stepladder. Make sure the exterior is free of tools, which should be locked safely away.

Doors

Ideally, your doors should be constructed of solid-core metal, devoid of those lovely glass panes that can be easily broken -- and equipped with sturdy double locks.

"Standard locks can be opened with a credit card," says Cromwell. "You need a deadbolt lock that extends at least an inch and a half into the door frame, because you'd practically have to kick down the door to get in."

Consider a "smart lock" that enables you to open doors using a mobile device, keypad, or finger scan. And get a store-bought patio-door lock to replace the flimsy (and yes, breakable) broomstick that you've wedged into your patio-door track.

Make sure garage doors -- and any entryways from the garage to the house -- remain tightly locked. (And hide the cord that extends from the garage opener's overhead cable, as burglars can yank it down to open the garage door.)

Pay extra attention to securing doors that are below ground level.

"Thieves just love walk-out basements," says Scott Decker, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University in Phoenix and the co-author of " Burglars on the Job." "They're out of sight, muffle the sounds of break-ins, and often offer convenient spots where criminals can stash items, making off with them all at once."

Windows

Hang drapes or blinds in your windows to deter thieves from seeing what kind of loot lies inside. Near entryways, consider glass coated with a film that makes it difficult to break.

"Get storm windows," advises Decker. "Shattering two panes of glass not only makes it more difficult to get in, but creates more noise that will prompt neighbors to call the police."

Get deadbolt locks for your windows to complement the ones on your doors. And note that security grates or bars on windows can be a mixed blessing. Though they may deter thieves, they can pose a safety hazard if a fire or other emergency is blocking other exits in your home -- and you can't find the grate key in your scramble to escape. Plus, they're unattractive to buyers, who may wonder if the neighborhood is really that bad.

Lights

Install motion-detecting lights all around your house, and make sure you can adjust the sensitivity so they won't flip on (and freak you out) when a tree branch rustles in the wind. With compact fluorescent bulbs, these lights won't use too much extra energy. And note that while a security lighting system is important, there's actually less risk to your home at night.

"Nearly 70% of burglaries are committed during the daytime, when thieves know people aren't around," says Cromwell. "Lights can help, but you need to make sure you complete the full spectrum of safety measures in order to ward off thieves."

Alarms

If you do have an alarm system, you should post the alarm company's logo on your lawn and/or entrance.

"Generic alarm signs from hardware stores do nothing to deter experienced thieves," says Cromwell. Make sure you keep the system on at all times -- a precaution many homeowners neglect to take. Also note that a dog can serve as a secondary (but not a substitute) alarm.

"My 15-pound, white bichon fris may look harmless," jokes Cromwell. "But his bark is so loud that it can raise an alarm by attracting the attention of my neighbors down the street."