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Worst holiday hazards - from 'porch pirates' to tree fires - and how to avoid them

When the eggnog gets passed around and family frivolity goes into full swing, we are typically too engrossed in holiday cheer to think about potential disaster lurking around the corner. However, a new insuranceQuotes.com study finds that the holidays can often come wrapped in a host of possible hazards.

A November study conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, commissioned by insuranceQuotes.com, polled 1,000 American adults who were asked to recount the frequency of certain holiday hazards, including injuries to house guests, weather-related driving accidents, and fires caused by cooking mistakes and decoration disasters. The findings were rather staggering.

For instance, thieves are taking advantage of online shopping's growing popularity and swiping deliveries from front porches and mailboxes before the packages reach their rightful owners. According to the study, 23 million Americans have had packages stolen from their homes before they could open them. (Numbers are derived from the most recent census figure (2010), showing 234.6 million Americans are ages 18-plus.)

What's more, 7 million Americans have had a guest injured in their home, 16 million Americans have experienced a house fire due to cooking accidents, and 2 million Americans have had fires caused by Christmas trees and other decorations.

Winter weather and holiday celebrations also increase risks on the road. According to the study, 52 million Americans have gotten into a car accident because of snow, ice or rain. Moreover, 30 million have gotten into an accident because of heavy traffic, 21 million because they were speeding, and 5 million because they drank alcohol before getting behind the wheel.

See also: Americans don't know how to shop for auto insurance

And when it comes to hosting holiday events, we often don't think of the strain such gatherings can put on a home's infrastructure. For instance, according to the study, 47 million Americans have experienced a sewer backup during the holiday season.

But with the right amount of preparation and precaution, you don't have to be one of these statistics.

"While some hazards are hard to predict, we often see jumps in certain claims during the holiday season," says Allstate Insurance agency owner Frank Torres. "During the holidays, just a few simple steps can make a world of difference in keeping your home safe from harm."

Attack of the porch pirates

While online shopping may have added a great deal of convenience to many Americans' shopping experience, it has also brought about a phenomenon known as "porch pirating," and according to the insuranceQuotes.com study, 23 million Americans have been a victim of this practice.

"Yes, many thieves don't have anything better to do than to follow delivery trucks around town to see what kind of bountiful packages they'll be leaving at the doorsteps of homes," says personal and home security specialist Robert Siciliano. "This means even more crooks simply drive around residential areas during the holidays looking for boxes sitting outside of doors. These crooks will simply walk off with the packages."

According to Siciliano, here are a few steps savvy online shoppers can take to avoid being a victim of porch pirating.

When possible, have your packages delivered to a location where they can be received in person, such as a neighbor's or relative's house. And if your employer allows it, Siciliano suggests having packages delivered to work.

If the online retailer provides the option, choose a specific delivery time, or consider having your package delivered to a local store for pickup.

If a pickup location is far from home, Siciliano suggests installing a visible surveillance camera over the door. "A fake one will look just as real," says Siciliano. "The only drawback to a fake one is if the thief is either exceptionally brazen or doesn't see the camera."

Technology is your friend. Take advantage of delivery alerts on your smartphone so you can be notified when a package arrives. If you are not available to accept delivery, ask a trusted neighbor to take your package inside for safekeeping.

Added insurance for holiday valuables

Porch pirates aren't the only thieves to worry about during the holiday season. According to a recent Allstate Insurance poll, burglary in general increases 11 percent during the holidays. Theft of silverware and flatware increases 23 percent, property stolen from a vehicle increases 17 percent and missing property from the garage increases 51 percent.

While a basic homeowners, condo or renters policy should provide ample protection for most of your possessions, it may not do the trick for certain valuables such as new holiday jewelry or antique flatware.

That's because there are strict limits on what's covered. For instance, most standard homeowners policies provide between $1,000 and $1,500 of coverage for jewelry, watches and furs.

"And that's not $1,000 per item, but $1,000 for the entire claim," says Jeff McCarthy, manager of Harrington Insurance Agency in Massachusetts. "That probably won't be enough for a host of stolen valuables."

What's troubling, however, is that the insuranceQuotes.com study found that half of Americans don't realize the importance of insuring their gifts and valuables, and 51 percent of respondents said they aren't likely to insure jewelry they give or receive this season.

See also: Jewelry insurance 101 (video)

McCarthy says the simplest (and typically least expensive) solution is to buy an endorsement, or add-on, that will upgrade your homeowners or renters policy. Most insurers offer them, and they're marketed under various names. An endorsement (sometimes called an enhancement) to a homeowners policy might give $5,000 worth of protection for jewelry and furs, $5,000 for silverware, and some coverage for antiques and fine arts.

Endorsements cost anywhere from $2 to $15 a year for every $1,000 of insured value. So an endorsement on $5,000 worth of jewelry would mean an additional $10 to $75 a year on your homeowners insurance premium.

Guard against property damage and injury

Yes, the holiday season is full of cheer, but it is also full of potential hazards to you, your family and your home.

For instance, according to the insuranceQuotes.com study, 16 million Americans have experienced a house fire due to a fryer or cooking accident, and 2 million have had fires caused by Christmas trees and other decorations.

"Homeowners and apartment dwellers are at most risk for fires because of inattentiveness," says Paul Rouse, administrative officer with Guardian Safety Solutions International Inc. and fire suppression educator and expert. "It's easy to start to cook a meal and then forget about it. Next thing you know, a fire starts on the stove and quickly spreads to curtains and other flammable material in the kitchen."

And cooking isn't the only potential cause of holiday-related conflagrations. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the top three days for home fires caused by candles are Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

What's more, according to Allstate's poll, more than 50 percent of adults admit they have plugged too many lights into one outlet, 29 percent have left a real Christmas tree without water for more than three days (increasing the risk of fire), 28 percent have left the house and/or fallen asleep with candles burning, and just over a quarter of fireplace owners have not cleaned or inspected their fireplaces in the past year.

According to child safety and health expert Debra Holtzman, you can take a few easy steps to avoid property damage and injury during the holiday season.

Take care of your Christmas tree. Choose a fresh tree, put it in a sturdy stand, and place it out of the way of traffic, doorways, exits, and heat sources. Cut off about 2 inches of the trunk to expose fresh wood for better water absorption, and water it frequently. And if you purchase an artificial tree, be sure it is labeled as "fire resistant."

Decorate safely. Use only noncombustible or flame-resistant materials. "If you have small children, avoid decorations that are sharp, breakable, weighted, or have small removable parts," says Holtzman. "And avoid trimmings that resemble candy or food that may tempt a child to eat them."

Avoid candles. Consider using electric or battery-operated flameless candles instead. "But if you do use candles, keep them on a stable, heat-resistant surface in sight where kids and pets cannot reach them or knock them over," says Holtzman. "And make sure you extinguish them when you leave the room or home or go to sleep."

Use caution with electric lights. Use only lights that have been tested for safety by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL). And make sure to check outdoor lights for labels showing that the lights have been certified for outdoor use, and only plug them into a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI)-protected receptacle or a portable GFCI.

Don't neglect smoke detectors. Homeowners should install smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home. Change batteries at least once every year (the holidays are a good reminder), test them monthly and replace the units every 10 years. Smoke alarms can cut your family's chances of dying in a fire by nearly half, says Holtzman.

Do you have an umbrella?

Despite these precautions, accidents still may occur, and homeowners may want to take this holiday season to consider obtaining an umbrella insurance policy to add additional liability coverage.

According to Frank Darras, a national consumer litigator who specializes in insurance, umbrella insurance is designed to give homeowners added liability protection above and beyond the limits on a typical homeowners policy. Depending on the insurance company, Darras says homeowners can add up to $5 million in liability protection under some umbrella policies.

See also: What is umbrella insurance?

Not only do umbrella policies provide an extra level of liability protection, they are also relatively affordable. For example, Darras says increasing coverage with a $1 million personal umbrella policy can cost between $100 and $300 per year.

"This protection is designed to kick in when the liability on your other current policies has been exhausted," Darras says. "And this may be the perfect time of year to look into this."

Click here for the full media release.

Study methodology: insuranceQuotes commissioned Princeton Survey Research Associates International to obtain telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults living in the continental United States. Interviews were conducted by landline (500) and cell phone (500, including 276 without a landline phone) in English and Spanish by Princeton Data Source from Nov. 5-8, 2015. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

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A new insuranceQuotes.com study finds that the holidays can often come wrapped in a host of possible hazards.