Personal Finance

The expensive vacation memory you didn't plan for

Key Points
  • August has 13 percent more theft-related claims compared with other months.
  • The average home theft insurance claim is $3,990.
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Before you head out on vacation this month, here's another item for your to-do list: Make sure your home isn't a target for burglars.

Theft is the fourth-most-common homeowners insurance claim, affecting 1 in 235 insured homes each year, according to Insurance Information Institute calculations of data from ISO, a division of insurance risk assessment firm Verisk Analytics. The average loss is $3,990.

Claims peak during the summer months. August has 13 percent more theft-related claims compared with other months, and July has 12 percent more, according to 2016 data from Travelers.

"There's probably a correlation to the fact that people are traveling more," Scott Humphrey, second vice president of risk control for Travelers, told CNBC.

Here's how to protect yourself:

Make it seem like you're home

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"Once someone gets into your house, they're going to find whatever is in your house," Todd Morris, founder and chief executive of home security firm BrickHouse Security, told CNBC. "I would spend more time thinking of keeping them out of your house."

The best defense is low tech, Morris said: Don't give strangers reason to suspect you're not home. Have your mail and newspapers held, and ask a trusted friend or neighbor to keep up with regular chores like mowing the lawn and putting the trash cans out and in.

If you're leaving the car at home, keep it where you normally would — whether that's in the driveway or the garage, he said.

Consider an inexpensive automatic timer to turn lights off and on, which makes the home look lived in, said Humphrey. There are even "fake TV" lights that mimic a flickering screen.

Assess your insurance

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You might not have enough coverage for your valuables. Many of the items burglars target — cash, electronics and jewelry — are those that have sublimits in the typical homeowners insurance policy, Loretta Worters, a vice president for the Insurance Information Institute, told CNBC.

Jewelry, for example, is often capped at $1,000 (total, not per piece). That's not much, when you consider that a burglar is likely to sweep up your entire jewelry box, she said.

Talk to your insurance agent about policy limits, and then assess whether it makes sense to add a rider or endorsement to increase coverage on any expensive items or categories. (You might also look into insurers who specialize in insuring particular categories, such as photography equipment or jewelry.)

Check in periodically to make sure you still have adequate coverage for any items appreciating in value, said Humphrey. Add coverage as needed when you acquire new pieces.

If you're taking precautions to protect your home, let your insurer know, Worters said. Many offer discounts for home alarm systems, home safes and even for keeping some valuables in an off-site safety deposit box.

Be antisocial

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Don't post about your vacation on social media until you're home — especially on platforms where the audience for your updates and photos is wider than trusted friends and family.

"Posting about being away from your property could give thieves an opportunity to strike while they know you aren't there," Humphrey said.

Enlist watchful eyes

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"Tell your neighbors — the ones you trust, obviously — that you're away, so that you can get their cooperation," Morris said.

That might be scooping up an errant Amazon package that arrives while you're away, serving as a backup contact for the alarm company or just being on alert for anything odd happening on your property, he said.

A doorbell cam or security camera aimed at your front door can also be a worthy investment, Morris said. Many thefts happen between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., he said — when your watchful neighbor is at work and precautions like yard floodlights are ineffective.

"You can set up the system so that if there's motion, you would get an alert [on your phone] and you'd be able to see the video of who it is," he said.

That can provide a timely warning — Morris said thieves often play "ring and run" to case a home, and will try to enter via the door before exploring other avenues.

Create a home inventory

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Have good record of items in your home. That helps you figure out what's missing if there's a break-in and provides extra documentation for the claim, said Humphrey.

An inventory could be simply a list, or use pictures or video. There are a number of apps and sites to help with cataloging, too, including Sortly and Allstate's Digital Locker.

Limit access

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If you have a pet-sitter, housekeeper, neighbor or others accessing your home while you're away, consider upgrading to a keypad lock and assigning each individual a unique code, said Morris. That helps you track who entered the house, when, and also eliminates the risk of a burglar gaining access through a not-so-cleverly concealed spare key.

Warn your teens that it's not OK for them to allow friends to "borrow" the house for a party or date while the family is away.

"I can't tell you how many times we've heard that story from families," he said.

Secure valuables

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There's no point in giving burglars easy pickings. Vacation isn't the time to leave your laptop on your desk or the filing cabinet with your tax returns unlocked.

"Don't leave your valuables out," said Humphrey.

Don't put too much stock in locks and hiding places, though.

A smart thief will sweep popular stash spots like the freezer or your sock drawer, and even a safe may not be all that safe, said Morris. Burglars may attempt to crack it or, if it's not secured, simply take it with them.