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The secrets of a home burglar -- and 8 tips to keep him away

Locking your doors and windows are simple ways to reduce the odds that an intruder will invade your home. But even if your doors and windows are secure, thieves are checking out dozens of other signs that your home is an easy mark.

In 2009, home break-ins netted thieves about $1.5 billion in stolen goods. The bulk -- valued at more than $1 billion -- consisted of TVs, computers, video game systems and other electronic gadgets, according to the FBI. A break-in can steal your sense of security and can boost your homeowner's insurance premium.

Walter T. Shaw, 63, an ex-professional thief, says the economy has many desperate people turning to a life of crime.

home insurance burglary tips “It used to be that pros were the big-time burglars," Shaw says. "Now, people looking to put food on the table by selling flat-screen TVs and other electronic gadgets they stole are breaking into homes.”

Shaw led the “Dinner Set Gang," a burglary ring in the West Palm Beach, Fla., area that knocked off more than 2,200 homes, including those of Liberace and the Firestone family, from the early 1970s to early '90s. Shaw now provides consulting services to prevent the types of crime that he once committed. He served more than 11 years in prison after a member of his gang turned him in.

Here are eight tips from Shaw and other home security experts on how you can keep crooks from paying you a visit.

1. Shut up

Philip Farina, a personal security expert with Farina and Associates Ltd., a security and risk management company in Austin, Texas, says the biggest mistake homeowners make is maintaining a false sense of security and thinking that crime can't happen to them.

“That sense of security leads homeowners to offer everyone from the mailman to a stranger in the grocery store details they need to break into their home,” Farina says.

Farina says that even though you may be excited to share your vacation details on Facebook or Twitter, that's a bad idea. “You should limit sharing these details with people after you’re back home. That’s the time to brag about your fabulous trip,” he says.

Shaw agrees.

“If someone monitors your personal social media pages or blabs about your page’s details to someone else, a thief could easily get his hands on all he needs to steal from you,” Shaw says.

Additionally, Shaw says, you’ve probably told the person who mows your lawn or cuts your hair that you're heading out of town. Shaw says thieves often rely on informants such as hairstylists, carpet installers and bank tellers.

“Within seconds of meeting them, people would tell these strangers about an upcoming trip. The tipster would give us those details, for a cut of what we stole, and that made planning our job very easy,” he says.

2. Be careful with keys

Shaw says being irresponsible with a spare key increases the odds that your home will be burglarized.

“Homeowners forget that handing over a key to a neighbor means you’re giving everyone who goes to that neighbor’s home access to your key,” he says. “And part-time or novelty thieves can often bribe someone to lift spare keys from a neighbor’s home. They might pay a teen in the home or a teen’s friend to take the key.”

Rather than hiding spare keys or handing them to neighbors, Shaw suggests installing an entry keypad for your garage door. That eliminates the need for you to give a spare key to anyone.

“There's never been a lock I couldn’t get open," Shaw says.

A garage keypad can be purchased for roughly $15 to $30.

Houston Police Capt. Ron Daniels says crooks even are turning to the Internet to help them gain access to your house. A YouTube tutorial teaches criminals about a technique called "lock bumping," which Daniels says allows a burglar to make a key that opens an estimated 90 percent of all locks in the United States.

3. Set the alarm

Homeowners lock their doors but fail to turn on their burglar alarms, which makes the locks ineffective, according to Shaw.

“Locked doors and windows only stop thieves if the home has an alarm that’s on. A thief who knows what he’s doing can open a door or window in seconds without making any noise. So unless you have an alarm and have it turned on, locks can provide a false sense of security,” Shaw says.

Residential monitoring through an alarm system runs about $20 a month, with many companies installing the equipment for less than $99. That cost can be offset by discounts that home insurers offer if you have an alarm system -- typically 15 percent to 20 percent.

4. Keep up with yardwork

Landscaping plays a critical role in the security of a home.

“Grass that obviously hasn’t been mowed is an invitation to thieves,” Shaw says. “It’s a sure sign that no one is home, so a burglar won’t run into anyone in the house.”

It’s a good idea to trim all shrubs and foliage to limit the areas where criminals can hide. Shaw says overgrown bushes make terrific spots for burglars go unnoticed and either observe your house or wait for the right time to break in.

5. Don’t show off

Keep your garage door closed while you’re mowing the lawn, doing yardwork or shoveling snow to prevent your garage’s goodies from enticing criminals.

“Burglars don’t want to walk up to your house to see what is going on. So open doors give them ample access,” Shaw says. “The less a criminal can know about your house from walking by, the better for you."

6. Keep your valuables safe

Daniel Rosenberg, president of Global Security Consulting Inc. in Tarzana, Calif., says that if you have a safe, use it. “Hotel-grade safes are inexpensive and easy to install,” he says.

But don’t keep the safe in a closet or under the bed in your master bedroom. "Those are the first places thieves go because that’s where everyone keeps valuables as well as electronics,” Rosenberg says.

So, where could you safely stash a safe? Shaw recommends the kitchen, as it's usually too far from the thief’s planned exit path. The kitchen often sits in the middle of the house or is visible from the front door, so going into the kitchen is "too risky and takes too much time," Shaw says.

A hotel-quality safe costs roughly $199 to $350.

7. Cover up

There’s no need to give crooks a bird’s-eye view of the flat-screen TV hanging on your wall or the jewelry box on your nightstand.

“Window coverings are a must to prevent thieves from seeing in and deciding which rooms they want to hit before ever stepping foot in your house,” Rosenberg says.

8. Lighten up

Daniels recommends looking at the exterior of your house as though it’s a Christmas tree. “Light it up so crooks can’t get close enough to test a door’s handle or pick a lock,” he says.

Daniels suggests installing motion-activated floodlights positioned at the corners of your home.

“Thieves don’t want to be seen, so the first flick of a floodlight and they’re going to rethink going any further,” Shaw says.

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