How to Stay Safe Now that You're Living Alone

If you've recently separated or divorced, the fear of home invasion can be very real. Once, there were two of you to stand sentinel over your home. Now, you're "home alone."

"It can have an incredibly strong impact on a person's emotional state," says Lesley Ackrill, spokesperson for The Interval House, a Toronto women's shelter. "When someone has divorced or separated, they already feel like they've had a loss. If they have to move, it all just sort of snowballs. Their self-esteem is low, they don't know where things are, and they're out of their element. It all contributes to the absolute insecurity of the whole situation."

Fortunately, there are many precautions that you can take to reduce the risk of home invasion. Whether you choose to implement simple, low-cost security measures or to install a sophisticated security system, the key to prevention is to be proactive.

Click here for tips from crime prevention officers and industry experts that may help your home from becoming a statistic.



Know Your Neighbors

It's only natural that you value your privacy right now, but getting to know your neighbors is an important step in crime prevention. That "Nosy Parker" across the street or down the hall could prove to be a valuable ally. "When someone is watching your home, that's a good thing," says Police Constable Ed Heinrichs, a crime prevention officer with the Metro Toronto Police Service's Community Policing Support Unit. Remember: getting to know some of your neighbors doesn't mean that you have to provide them with intimate details about your separation or divorce. Try to be cognizant of your neighbors' comings and goings. You might also consider exchanging telephone numbers with your immediate neighbors. Contact your local police division for information about joining or starting a Neighborhood Watch.

Get professional help. You might want to consider asking a crime prevention officer to inspect your apartment or home and identify its weak points (for instance, rotting door frame, poor choice of lock, etc.). Police Constable Paul Levison, of a Toronto crime prevention unit concentrates on common access points, such as front door, side doors, rear windows, garage security, visibility, lighting, and hardware.

Do Your Homework

If considering a move to a new neighborhood, Heinrichs recommends that you take the time to "get a feel" for the area. "Depending on your lifestyle, this could involve talking to people at a community center, library, or other neighborhood gathering place," he says. Drive or walk around at different times of the day. See what's going on, and who's out and about: "It's generally a good sign if the community seems to support a wide range of ages," he advises.

Be alert -- and trust your instincts. How does the foot traffic differ at night from daytime hours? How many businesses remain open in the evening? What kind of business do they conduct? Are there people loitering on the corners? Are there Neighborhood Watch or Block Parent programs in place? Your local police division will also be able to help shine some light on the area, by providing you with brochures, helpful hints, and insider information about the potential for crime.

See your home through a burglar's eyes. If you're selling your home, "curb appeal" is a good thing. But if you're concerned about home security, you won't want your home to shine so brightly that it attracts the attention of burglars. "We try to look at the house the way a bandit would," says Levison. "You have to think the way they do." Keep expensive gardening tools, bicycles, lawn mowers, automotive accessories, and things like ladders, hammers, and screwdrivers that might prove helpful to burglars in their break-in attempt under lock and key in your garage or shed.

Landscape design is also important. Shrubs, statuary, hedges, and trees can be effective hiding places for burglars. They can also obstruct your house from the view of patrolling police or neighbors. Is your house an easy mark? Try this simple exercise. Stand across the street from your home. Can you clearly see your windows and doors? If not, trim back trees or shrubs or move them to another part of your property. By their very nature, privacy fences can also pose problems. They not only block your neighbor's view of the house, they also block their view of burglars! House numbers should be clearly visible so that police can respond quickly to a call for help. They should be large (at least six inches high), illuminated at night, and, if possible, visible from both front and back of the property. Lighting your property is equally important. Pay special attention to lighting door areas; be sure you have a porch light. Motion detector lights are an effective security device, and they also help light the way to the door, should you have forgotten to leave the lights on for yourself when you went out.

Be Mindful of Entry Points

A high percentage of break-ins are actually walk-ins. The message from police: don't make it easy for the burglar by leaving doors and windows unlocked. Whether you're home, or just going out to the store for a minute, always lock your doors and windows. If it's too hot in the summertime to be locked inside your own home, be sure you've locked your screen door and window screens. "At first, it may seem like you're being paranoid," says Heinrichs, "but when you make a practice of locking the doors and windows when you're home, it soon becomes a habit."

Doors: Locks with key holes in the knob are not reliable as they can be easily forced. Police departments and security professionals recommend dead-bolt locks with a one-inch throw bolt or a heavy duty drop-bolt lock. Use a licensed locksmith, and install a pick-resistant cylinder with protective guard plate. It's a good idea to install a second lock, too. Consider who will be using the door so that it's situated at the appropriate height.

Security experts and police recommend that you change locks when you move into a new apartment or house. You should also change them if you've ever lost keys, or if you're uncertain about the number of duplicates that have been distributed to others. "Key control is extremely important," says Heinrichs. "You never know how many people had access to keys or copies of the keys." Never hide keys outside your home or apartment, no matter how good you think the hiding place is. Burglars are home-owners, too, and have good instincts when it comes to finding keys.

All exterior doors should be either metal or solid wood core. The hinges must be on the inside of the door, and the frames should be checked for rot. Be sure that your peephole affords you a wide-angle, peripheral view of the hallway or your front step -- and be sure to use it before you open the door to anyone.

Windows: Most windows can be pinned for security in partially or fully-closed positions. Your local police division can provide you with more information about pinning techniques. Basement windows should be secured with grilles or bars with a safety latch for inside opening. Sliding windows and patio doors represent another challenge: be sure to secure either with self-tapping screws in the upper track that allow the door/window to slide into place, or by placing a piece of wood into the bottom track to protect against lateral force.

Secure Your Personal Safety

"If personal safety is an issue, or if you've been with an abusive partner, you need to take extra steps," says Lesley Ackrill. "Get an unlisted phone number, install an external security system, and make certain that your exterior door has a dead-bolt lock, a chain lock, and a peep hole. And if you're being harassed, get a restraining order."

Many women are afraid to report harassment to police because of shame or fear. If your ex-husband was abusive and he starts coming around, don't minimize the situation. "You must report it to the police every single time," Ackrill insists. If you're being harassed, it's also important to have someone you know check in with you when you leave the house and when you return.

Heinrichs suggests that people who are concerned about an intruder create a "safe room" in their home or apartment. Most people choose the master bedroom because of its proximity to the children's rooms. Be sure that the door to the room has the same safety features as your external doors and that there is always a telephone or cell phone inside the room.

Protect Yourself in an Apartment

Apartment buildings differ from single dwellings in many ways. From a security standpoint, the most important difference is access. "One person opens the door and 10 people can walk in," explains Levison. Then there's the anonymity of apartment life. A stranger in the building is not likely to raise suspicion. Patio doors pose another threat to apartment security. "People either don't shut them or don't lock them," he explains. "Just because they're 21 floors up doesn't mean that no one can break-in. The pattern is to enter the first apartment through the front door -- and then break into others by climbing over the balconies."

There are several simple but effective measures you can take to reduce the risk of theft or assault if you live in an apartment building. When parking in an underground lot, try to park near an elevator or staircase. It also helps to leave your car either under a light or in a well-lit, high-traffic area. If you have a car with bucket seats, leave the back of the driver's seat folded forward. When you return to your car, you'll have a clear view of the back seat.

Remove all of your belongings from your car. Some people even leave the glove compartment open to show thieves that there's nothing inside. If car theft is a problem in your area, you might want to consider protecting your vehicle with the Club or a car alarm. And be sure to pull out your apartment keys from your purse, jacket, or attache case before you leave the safety of your car.

Elevators can be particularly intimidating for apartment dwellers. Never enter an elevator if the occupant looks suspicious. Trust your instincts and don't worry about offending the occupant. If that concerns you, tell them that you forgot your mail, or that you're waiting for a friend.

Many of us have had an elevator mysteriously deliver us to the basement of a building instead of to our chosen floor. This can be a potentially dangerous scenario. Elevators can be "cleared" through the following procedure: Step inside the empty elevator and press the basement button. Step back out of the elevator and into the hallway. Wait until the elevator begins its descent, then press the up button. The elevator will clear itself and return to your floor.

More Apartment Safety Tips

  • Never hold the lobby door open for a stranger or open it if he or she sees you and knocks. You may be unwittingly allowing a burglar access to your building and endangering yourself and all of your fellow tenants.

  • List your last name and first initial only on the tenant directory.

  • Use your intercom and door release wisely. Don't buzz anyone into the building unless you know them.

  • Be sure to extend security measures out onto your terrace.

  • If you live on a top floor, make sure that the door to the roof is closed.

  • Secure air conditioners so that they cannot be pushed in or pulled out of the window or wall.

  • Report suspicious behavior and/or persons to the superintendent or police. Keep your superintendent's phone number handy.



Come and Go the Smart Way

Get to know which businesses in your neighborhood are open 24 hours a day, advises Ackrill. Plan your route home, and if you sense that someone is following you home, head for the store or bar that you know to be open. If a friend is giving you a ride home, ask him or her to wait until you're safely within the house. Have your keys ready before you get to the door.

If you're going out and suspect someone is watching you, say goodbye to the house. Tell your house you'll be right back, or that you're just going out to get some milk. The idea is that would-be burglars will assume that you're talking to someone inside the house.

Should you arrive home and find your door open or discover other signs of a break-in, don't go inside. Call 911 from a pay phone or a neighbor's house and ask police to meet you at a safe location.

When You Are Away

Most burglaries occur in July and August. Give yourself some peace of mind while you're on vacation -- summer or winter -- by following these precautions:

  • If listing your number in the phone book, use only your last name and first initial. Never tell callers that you're away or on vacation: instead, say that you can't come to the phone. If you live alone, use "we" instead of "I." If you're concerned about your number appearing on someone's call display, subscribe to a call blocking service to prevent the use of call return.

  • Check all doors and windows before you leave and make sure that your garage is securely locked.

  • Leave curtains and blinds open.

  • Cancel deliveries, or have a trusted neighbor or friend pick up your mail and newspapers. Consider asking neighbors to use your garbage cans.

  • Turn down the volume on your phones.

  • Use clock timers to turn on lights, TVs, and radios. Stagger the times, or use the "random" setting to turn things on and off at irregular intervals.

  • Arrange for yard maintenance, such as lawn mowing or snow shoveling.

  • Leave on a radio.

  • Keep a car parked in the driveway while you're away.



More Sophisticated Security Measures

You may wish to supplement these tips with more sophisticated security measures. Cheryl Bifolchi, director of marketing for Chubb Security Systems, believes that "almost anyone" can benefit from having an alarm system. "It opens up a whole new avenue of comfort for people that they haven't experienced before," she says. "They can walk in the house and immediately relax. They can tell at a glance that no-one has been in the house while they've been out." Ackrill believes that alarm systems are particularly important for women who have been with an abusive partner. "A personal security system is also useful," she suggests.

The range of security options available today is practically limitless -- from alarms with sirens, wireless systems, alarms with monitoring services, and home safes to security guards, closed circuit television, and dogs. But before you turn your home into a Fort Knox, it's important to understand your needs -- and to anticipate possible problems. Be sure to take your lifestyle into consideration, advises Heinrichs: "People who are shopping for an alarm system have to realize that they have to live with it, and that all of the family members need to know how to deal with it."

False alarms are an issue that's of great concern to both police and the security industry. Industry experts believe that if the alarm system is properly installed and maintained, the incidence of false alarms should be "virtually non-existent."

Pick a Safety Deposit Box

While safety deposit boxes are a good idea for storing documents and valuables you don't need to access on a regular basis, many people are considering a home safe for storing valuables. There are a few important points to consider when choosing a safe. While some safes offer both fire and burglary protection, if you're looking to secure your valuables, weight is the key consideration. Look for a safe that weighs at least 500 pounds. It should have a digital lock and be of a commercial quality but be streamlined for the home. For easy day-to-day access, safes are installed in closets; if immediate access is not an issue, they can be installed out of sight in the basement.

Burglary is a crime of opportunity. Make that opportunity as non-existent as possible, without making yourself crazy, says Heinrichs. "You have to have your own comfort level," he points out. "It can happen, but it's like winning the bad lottery." Reduce the odds -- and you'll come out a winner in the battle against crime.

When writer Jane Nahirny first moved to the country, she thought she'd be immune to break-ins. But when a friend's home was burglarized, she realized that crime can happen anywhere, even in a rural setting. "We've now taken steps to make our property more secure," she says. "It just makes sense to do what you can to reduce the risk of theft."

Divorce Magazine provides advice and support for those coping with separation, divorce, and remarriage. For more tips and stories, visit www.DivorceMagazine.com.

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