BERLIN — Hundreds of local residents joined the throngs of Black Friday, and Cyber Monday for that matter, as the holiday shopping season hits full stride, prompting local law enforcement officials this week to issue a few common sense reminders to ensure they, and their packages, make it home safely.
Thousands of shoppers are flocking to area shopping centers, malls and outlet centers for the first big push of the holiday shopping season. Joining them, unfortunately, is an in-kind criminal element ready to take advantage of even the smallest opportunity. It happens every year at this time and local law enforcement agencies step up patrols and increase visibility in heavy traffic shopping areas, but residents and visitors should be armed with a good dose of common sense and extra vigilance to deter even the most determined would-be criminals.
“The holiday shopping season is definitely underway, but it’s important for citizens to remember it’s not just a busy time for retailers,” said Ocean City Police Department spokesperson Jessica Waters this week. “It’s important for shoppers to be vigilant when hitting the stores.”
Of course, it’s important for shoppers to be cautious at all times of the year, but because of the sheer volume of holiday shopping and the associated criminal element preying on it, the number of incidents spike up during late November and early December. Worcester County Sheriff’s Department Colonel Doug Dods said this week many holiday shoppers let their guard down and throw common sense out the window during the hustle and bustle of the season.
“The biggest thing we like to recommend is be aware of your surroundings and be aware of what’s going on around you,” he said. “A lot of holiday shoppers are distracted and are hurrying from one place to the next and they tend to let their guard down a little.”
Dods said a new wrinkle for holiday shopping predators this year appears to be an increase in Internet-related crime. With more shoppers headed to the computer instead of the mall, as indicated by a reportedly robust Cyber Monday this week, savvy criminals are finding a way to prey on them as well.
“One of the new things we’re seeing already this year is an increase in email scams,” he said. “We’re seeing cases of scammers sending emails to people reminding them of a package they are waiting for, whether it’s real or not, and they ask people to open a hyperlink to access their tracking. Once that link is opened, it allows cyber criminals to gain access to personal information and even accounts in some cases.”
Dods recommended individuals waiting for holiday deliveries to stick with the traditional tracking methods and avoid email reminders altogether.
“Go back to the original order and the company you’re dealing with and get the tracking number from them,” he said. “Know when you’re expecting a package and go to the websites of your carrier, whether it be UPS of Fed Ex, to make sure everything is legitimate.”
Of course, the irony in the increase in Internet-based crime is that many residents have resorted to computer shopping to avoid the traditional criminal element in parking lots and shopping malls, only to find a more sophisticated criminal waiting to prey on them.
“When it comes to cyber theft and on-line scams, you have to be just as vigilant,” said Dods. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is in most cases.”
Cyber theft and Internet crime present new challenges to local law enforcement officials beyond traditional police work. For example, new scams are often introduced more quickly than law enforcement can keep up. There is also a risk a law enforcement agency’s own computer infrastructure can be compromised by investigating cyber theft. In addition, Internet-based crime often creates jurisdictional issues. “In a lot of these cases, the actual theft might only be $20, or $30 or $50, but there are jurisdiction problems,” said Dods. “The problem is, the transactions are crossing state lines or even international borders. It makes it a little more difficult to investigate and then prosecute.”
Traditional holiday shopping in shopping centers, malls and outlet centers continue to present opportunities during the holiday shopping season and local law enforcement is urging residents to exercise common sense.
“If you’re shopping at night, park in well-lit areas as close to the entrance as possible,” said Waters. “Always be sure to have your keys in your hand before you leave the store so you’re not fumbling through your purse or pockets when you’re in the parking lot.”
Dods said it is important for shoppers to remember where they parked so they aren’t wandering around with an armful of packages when they come out. In addition, Dods warned shoppers to put packages in the trunk, or cover them if possible. Of course, shoppers are reminded to always keep their vehicle doors locked and never leave the car running while unattended, even for a second.
“We’re seeing that a lot already, especially on the other side of the bridge,” he said. “Shoppers will leave their car running to run in somewhere and criminals are hopping in and taking off. In a couple of cases, the vehicles had children or babies in them.”