20 Cheap Ways to Protect Yourself From Thieves

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Open door of a family home with keys in the lock
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CRIME STOPPERS

An alarm system is a great way to deter burglars, but also a big investment. On average, alarms cost more than $700 to install, Angie's List members say. Monitoring tacks on an average of $30 a month, according to the security-system review site Safewise. If you don't have that kind of cash to spare, don't worry: There are plenty of ways to protect a home — as well as cars and even your identity — from would-be thieves without overspending.

Closeup of hand locking a window
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GOT LOCKS? USE 'EM

Almost 30 percent of burglars gain entry to a home by slipping through a door or window that isn't locked, according to Safewise. Despite that, nearly one in five people say they don't lock their doors regularly, according to the security firm Eyewitness Surveillance. Safewise recommends keeping everything locked even when you're home, and using inexpensive wooden dowels in the tracks of vulnerable sliding doors.

Man installing a security camera on the side of his house
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FAKE A SECURITY SYSTEM

Experts say a security system is most valuable as a deterrent, and simply tricking thieves into thinking there's an alarm can send them running. Fake security signs are popular and cheap, but as SafeWise notes, a smart thief can simply Google the company to see that it doesn't exist (scoring an unused sign from a neighbor for a legit company might be a better plan). Also worth a shot: Bogus outdoor cameras — some are even less than $10 on Amazon.

Woman shaking hands with elderly male neighbor
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BEFRIEND YOUR NEIGHBORS

One of the best ways to help protect yourself and your home doesn't cost a dime: Get to know the neighbors. Forging personal relationships will give you more of an incentive to look after their house, and vice versa. You can even formalize things by starting a Neighborhood Watch to get even more of your neighbors invested, recommends the National Crime Prevention Council.

Woman closing drapes in front of window looking at camera
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THWART WINDOW SHOPPERS

Keep the drapes closed so burglars can't scope out their potential haul — but beware that some burglars may assume constantly drawn curtains are a sign you're on vacation, especially when they're shut all day. Similarly, after buying a shiny new TV or something else valuable, don't call attention to it by leaving the box at the curb for a long time. Instead consider taking the box to a local recycling drop-off.

Closeup of hand hiding money in a box of clothes
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FIND CLEVER HIDING PLACES FOR VALUABLES

Above all else, don't stash pricey jewelry or extra cash in the master bedroom. As Apartment Therapy notes, that's the first place a burglar will look. Living rooms and offices also tend to get more attention. The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors recommends using hollowed-out books or VHS tapes, fake food containers in the kitchen, boxes labeled as mundane storage in the garage, or even loose floorboards.

Empty living room with lamp on
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LOOK LIKE YOU'RE HOME

In more than 72 percent of burglaries, nobody is home, so keeping a house looking occupied (even when it's not) can lessen the risk of becoming a victim. Lifehacker recommends putting lights on timers, leaving a radio or TV on, and even playing a loop of random dog barking. If you'll be away for a while, leaving a car in the driveway and asking a neighbor to grab newspapers, drag the trash can away from the curb, or even mow the yard can also help.

Man carrying a ladder in front of his house
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STASH LADDERS AND TOOLS

It should go without saying, but you don't want to add tools to a thief's arsenal. One of the most obvious no-nos is leaving a ladder out, which can make it easier to reach open or unlocked second-floor windows. Some thieves have even used stacked patio furniture to gain entry to a home.

Spare key hiding outside the house
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GET CREATIVE WITH THE SPARE KEY

If you're convinced you need to keep a spare key somewhere outside the home, obvious hiding places are a no-go. Thieves know to look under the doormat or plants, inside the fake rock, or anywhere very close to the door, CNET warns. One of the best options? Have a trustworthy neighbor keep it for you. Another option CNET recommends: inside the lip of vinyl siding in a spot you can remember.

Woman and her child in their home in front of a window
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STAY UNPREDICTABLE

If you aren't locked into a rigid 9-to-5 schedule, simply keeping unpredictable hours can be a free, effective burglary deterrent. Most home burglaries take place during the day, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. when occupants are likely to be at work and school, according to the home-security company SimpliSafe. If a burglar looking for an easy target notices your home is hopping during those hours, he'll probably move along.

Man pruning his shrubs in front of house
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SIMPLIFY YOUR LANDSCAPING

Above all else, you want your home to be visible from the road and neighbors' homes — that gives thieves fewer places to hide. Angie's List recommends cutting back overgrown bushes or shrubs, particularly if they block windows or obscure the house from the road. If you still want to add a few plants, thorny shrubs can be a particularly painful burglar deterrent.

Man installing a light outside of his home
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LIGHT UP THE NIGHT

Dark corners of your home are tempting spots for a thief to try a nighttime break-in. While you can't exactly move your house so every potential point of entry is more visible, you can spend as little as $20 on outdoor security lights that light up when they detect motion.

Man and woman checking mailbox in front of home
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KEEP YOUR MAIL SECURE

Don't forget that an identity thief can do massive damage without ever setting foot in your home. As NerdWallet cautions, have your mail held if you'll be out of town, and once that mail is inside, shred anything that's potentially sensitive, such as credit-card offers or unnecessary bank statements.

Closeup of hand looking at Instagram on a smartphone
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STAY QUIET ON SOCIAL MEDIA

In this age of oversharing, it's hard to resist posting those real-time updates from the beach. But for tech-savvy burglars, those photos are a surefire sign you're not home — even if you're just posting an update from the store down the road. Be sure to lock down privacy settings and share only with friends you trust. An even better tip? Just wait until you're home before you share.

Person sitting outside using a laptop
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DON'T USE PUBLIC WI-FI

Public Wi-Fi networks are extremely easy for identity thieves to exploit — sometimes all they need to do is create a similar network, tricking you into connecting, the Harvard Business Review cautions. Then, every password used, every bank account manages, every email sent is on display. Consider using an inexpensive virtual private network to stay secure on the road.

Credit score paper on a desk with a laptop
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KEEP TABS ON YOUR CREDIT

No, you don't need an expensive credit-monitoring service. But since the massive Equifax data breach and its like, it's even more essential to know what's on a credit report and to check for suspicious activity. Free credit reports can be ordered at AnnualCreditReport.com each and every year.

Woman looking behind as she parks her car
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PARK DEFENSIVELY

Car thieves are less likely to steal a vehicle from a well-lit, well-traveled area where they're more likely to arouse suspicion. And as Geico notes, you should never leave a car running while it's parked, even for a moment. That includes in the winter, when it's tempting to warm up the car before driving away. Time recommends using a remote starter — or just bundling up better.

Purse in the front seat of car being broken into
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DON'T LEAVE VALUABLES IN YOUR CAR

It's one of the most common-sense tips on this list, but it's also one of the most effective. Smash-and-grab thieves can make off quickly with any valuables left in plain sight in your car, even if the doors are locked. Phones, purses, laptops, shopping bags, and briefcases are all particularly tempting targets, the insurer Nationwide warns. If you can't take them with you, keep them stowed in the trunk or under the seat.

Steering wheel lock in a car
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GET AN ANTI-THEFT DEVICE

If you're in an area especially vulnerable to car theft, a physical anti-theft device can be a cheaper alternative to getting a car alarm installed. A steering wheel lock such as The Club doesn't have to be expensive — Amazon has them for under $20. Some locks even secure the car's steering wheel to the brake or clutch.

Money hidden inside a money belt
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OUTSMART PICKPOCKETS

Don't let your guard down while traveling. Trade your purse or wallet for a small money belt worn under your clothes, recommends travel writer and TV host Rick Steves. Loop your bag around you while you're sitting; you can even use a twist-tie or paper clip to secure zippers, Steves recommends. And if a hotel has a room safe, use it for expensive valuables or travel documents you don't need 24/7. 

Happy couple at home taking notes and using a laptop
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RECORD YOUR VALUABLES

It won't deter a thief, but keeping a record of expensive items might increase the chances that you get them back after they're stolen. The Denver Post recommends recording serial numbers of items such as electronics, computers, guns, and bikes. That way, if they show up at the local pawn shop, they can be traced back to you.

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