NEW YORK _ Ah, the summer months _ a time to wind down, chill out and get away. Better make that lock up and look out as well.
The summer is peak season for home burglaries. Nearly a fifth of the 2 million residential break-ins each year occur in July and August, when most people are frolicking at the beach or vacationing miles away.
The season also is hot for home security sales, a growth industry in recent years.
First Alert, of Chicago, expects to sell 40 percent of its light timers, safes and other security products between now and August. Westec Security Inc., of Newport Beach, Calif., is preparing for a 25 percent to 40 percent increase in orders for its customized alarm systems in the next two months.
Overall, the National Burglar Fire Alarm Association reports a 40 percent jump in industrywide sales in the last five years, even though burglaries have actually declined slightly during that time.
"We're seeing a lot of growth in sales. . .(as) the perception of crime is on rise," said Linda S. Gimbel, a spokeswoman for the Bethesda, Md.-based association. "More and more Americans say they feel safer with a home security system. People are buying empowerment."
Security devices do help, studies show.
Homes protected with security alarms are about three times less likely to be burglarized than those without them and suffer 25 percent less losses even when burglaries occur. (The average take per house is usually around $1,200 in cash and goods.)
But how can consumers make sure they're not getting ripped off by those trying to prevent ripoffs?
It's not always easy when you look at the arsenal of security devices on the market today. Homeowners can arm themselves with everything from simple timers that automatically control indoor lights to sophisticated infrared sensors that detect intruders' footsteps at the front door.
"You can almost reduce your chances of being burglarized to zero. . .if you create a fortress of your home. But (that) will make your life unpleasant in the house," said Simon Hakim, a Temple University economist who has studied the behavior of burglars.
He believes the best way to ward off burglars is to make life difficult for them. "The average break-in time is 60 seconds. If it takes longer than that. . .a burglar is likely to go elsewhere."
Choosing the right security system depends largely on your budget and living habits. It's not practical, for instance, to invest in something that costs more than the possessions you're trying to secure, especially if you also have adequate insurance coverage. You also don't want a system that will severely inhibit movement in your own home.
"A good standard system will cover the perimeters of your home, alert you to when there's an intruder and let the intruder know he's been detected. It (also) will limit damage in your home and summon help," Gimbel said.
Most home security experts recommend using a combination of electronic alarms and simple anti-theft devices like indoor light timers or outdoor motion-sensing flood lights, which give a vacant home a more lived-in look.
Do-it-yourself alarm kits can cost as little as $200 at many electronic stores. …