When I collect news stories to post on Instagram and Twitter (are you following me there? @onherownlife for both), themes often pop up. Whether it’s the media paying more attention to a certain type of oddball event after they’ve seen it once, me doing the same, or some kind of weird zeitgeist where a kind of thing is really happening more, there are patterns. They may not be entirely novel situations and there may not be all that many actual occurrences, but even a handful of them are enough to make me notice trends, even if they’re showing up in our news feeds often only because they’re bizarrely fascinating to those of us reading along. One that’s been coming up are folks returning from hospital stays or vacations to discover squatters. More than just having your stuff stolen, someone moving right in seems like much more of a violation but clearly, it’s happened at least a few times. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to prevent yourself from being the next example of weird bad things that happen.
Let’s start with a tip that might seem impossibly basic: lock your doors and windows. In one video showing an invader, the rightful occupant asked how the bad guy how they’d gotten in, and he pointed to a window and told her she needed to put a lock on it. In another case, the resident had been taken to the hospital by emergency medical responders and while I’m certain she thought that the door was locked behind her, I’m sure we can all imagine the chaos of that type of situation and how the home accidentally might not have been properly secured. It’s worth double-checking before you head out the door, if you are able, but you have some options even if you are not. A simple one is to make it a habit to lock doors and windows immediately after closing them so you aren’t relying only on confirming. In addition, there are a variety of permanent, semi-permanent, and automatic locking mechanisms you can install, with or without drilling or other ways that can modify or damage rented property (although your landlord might give you permission if you ask). Something as simple as a heavy-duty dowel in the track of a sliding window or door can be enough to discourage someone looking for an easy score, whether they want to steal from you or move in.
Another somewhat old-fashioned tip is to stop your mail, install timers for your lights and television, and otherwise make it so your home doesn’t seem quite as empty as it is. Some indicators are unavoidable unless you have a house-sitter staying at your place or a dedicated friend who can move cars around and such. It’s still worth the effort, though, so that it’s not completely obvious to a casual observer that there is nobody home. Some stop mail requests can now be made online for general deliveries – including with USPS, UPS, and Fed Ex – and you may also be able to pause scheduled subscription deliveries. If you are invested in a smart home ecosystem, you may already be able to control lights, music, and more so you only need to remember to turn on that vacation schedule. Otherwise, you can add smart devices to the digital assistant already on your phone. A few smart plugs for your existing lamps or other appliances are relatively inexpensive and easy to set up.
While you’re at it with smart devices, consider including some video cameras or alarm system elements to alert you or record video footage of unusual activity, or simply to allow you to take a peek whenever you want. If you are concerned about personal security or privacy, you can set the cameras up only when you’re not home, or cover their lenses when you are. You might also think about using home security devices that run on a different system than your other smart devices, and that use backup batteries and cellular networks not tied to your regular Wi-Fi. Instead of or in addition to those systems, you can also just have someone keeping an eye on your place. A house sitter is the most complete option, but someone who stops by just once every few days will still spot trouble sooner than waiting all week until you get home. If you don’t have anyone else, or you want to layer more attention to spot something wrong, make friends with a neighbor. Telling them you are heading out of town won’t alert them to anything they won’t already be able to easily figure out, and they won’t need to go out of their way to notice odd happenings or unusual activity.
And finally, when you do finally get do get home, pause for just a moment. I know you’re excited to get inside, drop all your things, and enjoy being not-out. However, if it looks like someone’s gotten into your house, if a door or window doesn’t look closed right or if some other detail isn’t as you remembered leaving it, stop. If you can, take a cautious peek around to see if things are as out of place as they seemed at first glance, perhaps with a bright flashlight. Check in with the folks you had watching out for your home. Call the police if you find reason to have real concern, such as an open exterior door, a broken window, or even seeing a stranger inside. Avoid searching or confronting directly if you have the choice at all. It’s gone okay for some folks in the news, but can just as likely end in death or injury to you and not any potential bad guy. Hopefully, the measures you take to prevent someone from violating your home while you are away are enough, but if they are not, don’t let them steal your life or well-being too.