WASHINGTON — You can almost feel the sand under your toes as you finish packing the car, now overflowing, for your beach vacation. You carry in the flower pots that have been decorating the front stoop and flick on the porch light so the yard will be illuminated constantly while you’re away.

Sheriff’s Deputy James Spurlock says you might as well put a welcome mat out for a burglar.

The summer, a time of extended vacations, weekend getaways and day trips to the local pool, is also prime hunting season for thieves, said Spurlock, a crime prevention specialist in suburban Loudoun County, Va.

“Burglary, it’s not a random crime. They go out and look for a choice target. The mail is piling up, there are three or four days’ of newspapers on the driveway. If you maintain your own lawn and your grass hasn’t been cut for three weeks, someone is going to notice,” he said.

Simple steps can make it less likely that your home will be the next target. The key is securing your home and eliminating signs that you are away, police said. Doors and windows should be locked even if you’re only heading to the park or a neighborhood barbecue for a few hours.

For people who are going out of town for longer periods, police recommend putting both indoor and outdoor lights on timers to mimic typical usage, and sharing vacation plans with a trusted neighbor who can keep an eye on the home. Automatic garage door openers should be unplugged to prevent a thief from getting in.

Make your home look lived in while you’re away: Ask a neighbor with two cars to park one in your driveway, and arrange for a friend or lawn service to mow the grass.

A car left overnight packed with luggage and beach toys is a clear sign you’re heading out of town, Spurlock said. Keeping an outdoor light on constantly, when your typical routine is to turn it off during the day, or bringing in flower pots can also be signs that you’re gone.

“Look at your house a month before you go on vacation,” Spurlock said. “What does the outside look like? That’s how it should look when you go.”

And in the virtual world, don’t share your travel plans on Facebook, MySpace or other social networking sites, Fairfax County (Va.) Police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said.

“When you come home you can share your pictures, but do it afterwards,” Caldwell said.

Nationwide, burglars made off with $4.6 billion in electronics, jewelry, cash and other items in 2008, according to the FBI. In more than 30 percent of those burglaries, the thief got inside without forcing open a door or window. Many occurred during the day.

Police stressed that they want people to look out for their neighbors. If you see something that doesn’t look right, perhaps someone trying to peer into a window or a vehicle circling the neighborhood, call the police.

If someone does break in, don’t make it easy on him. Spurlock said. The average burglary takes between eight and 15 minutes, and bad guys grab what is in sight. Spurlock recommends putting precious jewelry or items of sentimental value in a plain box and stashing it in a basement or closet with other storage boxes.

“Any burglar knows that if a woman has a nice tennis bracelet it’s going to be in a drawstring bag or a velvet box, and it’s going to be in a drawer with her silky things,” Spurlock said. “Make the criminal work for every bit of goods they are going to get out of that house.”