Preventing holiday break-ins by increasing your home security during the holidays should be part of your plan during a busy and wonderfully hectic season of shopping and gift-giving, decorating and celebrating with friends and family. Unfortunately, it's an equally busy time of year for home burglars.

Nearly 400,000 burglaries occur in the U.S. from November through December each year, according to the FBI. The National Crime Prevention Council recommends that homeowners improve home security to protect their homes from break-ins during the holidays. To ensure that an intruder doesn't dampen your holiday season, follow these recommended home security precautions.

Holiday Home Security TipsDon't tempt fate: Holidays may be festive with home decorations and visiting friends and family, but don't let all of that activity compromise your home's security. Take a reserved approach when displaying expensive decorations and gifts. Give your fine china and elaborately wrapped presents a low profile, and resist the temptation to show them off to the entire neighborhood. If you can see these valuables from the street, there's a good chance they could end up on a burglar's wish list this year.

No bragging, please: Don't advertise expensive gifts to burglars by leaving empty gift boxes from your new computer, flat-screen TV or DVD player on the curb. Instead, break down the boxes and place them in large garbage bags to conceal the items that Santa has delivered. Better yet, take boxes directly to a recycling center after gifts have been opened.

Keeping up appearances: It's no secret that piles of unchecked holiday mail and newspapers can tip off burglars to an empty house and lead to holiday break-ins, but did you ever think about hiring someone to shovel snow from your driveway while you're away? If you're traveling throughout the holidays, it's a good idea to ask a neighbor to help keep up your home's appearances so it doesn't have that vacant look about it. Even a small favor such as asking your neighbor to occasionally park their car in your driveway can improve your home security.

Durable doors and deadbolts: Ensure that your holiday guests are the only ones welcomed through the front door this season by making the following entryway improvements.

  • Invest in a good-quality deadbolt. Doors with handle locks can be broken into with only a plastic credit card. Deadbolts, on the other hand, offer double the locking security and require hammer force to break in. Equip each of your entry doors with a deadbolt, not just the high-traffic ones. Your home is only as secure as its most vulnerable entry point.
  • Make sure you buy a deadbolt with keyed access on the outside and a thumb-latch on the inside. Locks that require keys to be used from the inside of the home can be dangerous if residents need to make a quick exit in the event of an emergency, like a fire. New styles of deadbolts, like the NightWatch offered by Master Lock, feature a locking mechanism that actually locks out duplicate keys when activated. If a contractor, housekeeper or next-door neighbor has regular access to your house keys, consider installing a NightWatch deadbolt to ensure that they can only access your home when invited.
  • Remember that no matter which lock you choose, it's only as strong as the door in which it's installed. The weakest part of a door is usually the area around the lock, and wooden doors are especially vulnerable to break-ins. Decorative door reinforcement plates are available for about $10, and can make this area more secure. Better yet, consider replacing your front entryway with a fiberglass door, which mimics the look of wood but is far stronger and more energy efficient. Fiberglass doors like those from Therma-Tru also feature multi-point locks that use bank-vault-style pins to prevent the door from being kicked in.
  • By virtue of their less-sophisticated locks and typical location at the rear of a house, a sliding patio door can be the most vulnerable entryway in a home if it's not properly reinforced. Consider equipping you doors with a specially made patio bar (about $25) that keeps the door from sliding back in its tracks even if the lock is broken into.  A patio bar can even secure older patio doors, which are susceptible to being lifted right out of their tracks and off of your house! Newer sliding doors cannot be lifted out of their tracks, and homeowners may consider the quick-fix alternative of snugly fitting a two-by-four piece of wood in the tracks between the back of the door and the wall.
  • Lastly, keep an eye out for unexpected visitors by installing a peephole in your front door. A wide-angle (200-degree) peephole offers a better view of your entire entryway when guests come knocking at your front door.

Window warnings: Nowhere else is your home more fragile or susceptible to a forced holiday break-in than at your windows. How you secure your windows is up to you, but it's important to keep in mind that occupants must be able to open them easily in the event of a fire. Therefore, the security device you choose should not lock you in the building, but only keep burglars out.

  • Various sash locks are common on most windows, but you can reinforce them on wooden windows by drilling a hole from the front to back where the top and bottom windows overlap, and installing a long nail into the hole. Do this on both sides of the window and take care not to drill too closely to the glass, or too far through the rear window.  The nails will stop the windows from sliding open, but you can easily remove them if you need to open the window quickly in an emergency.  Avoid investing in sash locks that require a key to operate. Like a double-keyed deadbolt, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to find these seldom-used keys in an emergency.
  • Home security for the holidaysSecurity bars installed over windows can prevent intruder access even if the window is unlocked or the glass is broken open. These bars are recommended for small, ground-level house windows situated in low-traffic areas that make a convenient and inconspicuous entrance for intruders. However, security bars must be fitted with quick-release mechanisms to allow them to open if someone in the building needs to get out quickly. In 1995, several members of a Florida family were burned alive when they became trapped inside their home because of window security bars. Fire officials later described the home as a burning cage and cautioned area homeowners to use these bars only when necessary and only if they are fitted with quick-release mechanisms.

Show them the light: The most secure house isn't just the one with the strongest locks. You can protect your home for the holidays just by making it a more discouraging target for holiday break-ins. 

  • Illuminate the exterior of your home on all sides to eliminate any safe hiding places for potential intruders. One of the most effective ways to do this is to install motion-detector spotlights, which have built-in sensors that automatically turn the lights on when movement is detected in the area. Nothing is more surprising to a thief than to have spotlights fire up in his face before he gets within 50 feet of the house!
  • Create the illusion of activity inside your home by installing timer switches on lights in main living areas. Use at least one timer per floor, usually in the living room and bedroom. Set the timer to keep the light on from about 9 pm until 1 or 2 in the morning. Not only will illuminated indoor lights imply that occupants are actually inside the home, they will increase the chance that a potential intruder is spotted if they try to break into the home.

Trim trees and bushes: Keep your home landscaping from providing useful cover for intruders attempting holiday break-ins. Tall trees or high brush give burglars dark, shadowy hiding spots to conduct their business without interruption. Keep your front yard's bushes and hedges cut low, especially around windows and entryways where burglars may perch before breaking and entering.

Smart home security systems: Affordable, customized home alarm systems are more widely available and arguably more effective today than they've ever been thanks to increased competition and advancements in technology. Besides home security, newer systems can also protect your home from fire and carbon monoxide, and some even include sensors that trip when the heat goes off to prevent freeze damage that could burst pipes. Most home security systems connect your telephone to the company's central monitoring station. If the alarm goes off, the station can alert police or fire officials of a potential holiday break-in or other issue.