Going away for the winter? Tips to halt home burglary

A young couple recently used cameras linked to a cell phone app to thwart burglars breaking into their Palos Heights townhome, even though they were more than 4,000 miles away at the time, on vacation in Hawaii.

The lesson was clear: 21st century technology can be used successfully to fight crime and protect property.

But what about people who don’t have the time, talent or financial wherewithal to purchase and utilize such gadgetry?

As many people know, returning from vacation to find a ransacked home can be a disturbing and even traumatic experience.

“We were on vacation [when the crime occurred], and I’ll tell you, I’ve never felt so violated or insecure. It’s a crazy feeling. You’ve got rage, but you know you can’t do anything,” said Palos Heights resident Raymond Strack at a City council meeting last year, as he voiced concern about police resources.

Local law enforcement officials offered a wealth of advice to The Regional News this week, especially to senior citizen snowbirds headed off for prolonged, January and February vacations in warm-weather destinations.

“Don’t share your travel itinerary on social media. Avoid chatting about your vacation plans on social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter,” said Palos Park Police Chief Joe Miller. “You never know who is reading your posts or tweets. If you need to share your itinerary for any reason, then give your travel plans to someone you trust.”

Ask a neighbor to stop by daily to pick up your mail, Miller added. In addition, your house key is better off with your neighbor than under the welcome mat or a plastic rock.

“Think about a house sitter,” Miller said. “A professional house sitter can help, and if you have pets, having a house sitter means you don’t have to put your dog or cat in a kennel, which can be traumatic for some animals.”

Palos Heights Deputy Police Chief Dave Delaney reminded everyone to “stop all deliveries while away; or better yet, allow the deliveries to continue and have a trusted neighbor pick up your newspapers and packages.”

Try to maintain the “lived in” look of your house while you are away, Delaney added. Use timers on lights, as well as TV and radio at various locations throughout your home at varying times.

“Turn the ringer down on your phones,” Delaney added. “A ringing phone that goes unanswered can alert a burglar to the absence of any occupants inside the home. Also, don’t announce your vacation on your voicemail.”

Officials also suggested removing valuables and storing them in a safe deposit box at a bank or with a trusted friend or relative.

Part of the “lived-in” look during winter should also include having someone shovel your snow and make tracks in your driveway.

“Another thing to remember is that there is no substitute for a good, nosy neighbor,” added Paul Rutherford of Cook County CrimeStoppers, a not-for-profit crime fighting organization that offers cash rewards for crime tips. “Get to know your neighbors, and make sure that when they see anything at all that’s suspicious, to call 911 promptly and let police investigate. Extra sets of eyes and ears are extremely important.”

Also important, officials agree, is working with police via local vacation watch programs. Police departments in Palos Heights, Palos Park and Orland Park all offer the service at no charge.

The Orland program is “fairly aggressive,” according to Orland Park Deputy Police Chief Thomas Kenealy, and involves residents sharing detailed information before they leave for vacation: flight information, itinerary, destination, length of stay, emergency contact numbers, as well as information about trusted friends, relatives, neighbors and others back home.

Additionally, village police stop by residences on home watch at least three times every 24 hours—getting out of the squad and conducting a perimeter check of the home, “even shaking doors and making sure that things are secure.”

More than a dozen households in the village are currently on house watch, Kenealy added, and said he could not recall a case from recent years in which a house on police watch in Orland Park was burglarized.

To obtain more information on house watch programs and receive more burglary prevention tips, contact your local police department.