Holiday Shoppers Reminded Of Criminal Element

BERLIN – Hundreds of local residents will likely join the throngs of Black Friday shoppers heading out this weekend to take advantage of the first real bargains of the holiday season, 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 holiday shoppers are flocking to area shopping centers, malls and outlet centers for the first big push of the holiday shopping season. Joining them, unfortunately, will be an in-kind criminal element ready to take advantage of even the smallest opportunity. It happens every year and local law enforcement agencies step up patrols and increase visibility is heavy traffic shopping areas, but a good dose of common sense and extra vigilance can help deter even the most determined would-be criminals.

“The biggest thing to keep in mind is safety,” said Colonel Doug Dods of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office this week. “Be aware of your surroundings and be aware of what’s going on around you. 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.”

Ocean City Police Department spokeswoman Jessica King agreed, saying most of the victims of crimes during hectic holiday shopping times find themselves in compromising positions.

“These are crimes of opportunity,” she said. “Unfortunately, there is often a criminal element lurking around waiting for an opportunity. They aren’t often confrontational and the crimes aren’t often violent crimes. More often than not, the victims let their guard down to open the door for crime.”

To that end, local law enforcement agencies this week offered a handful of common sense tips to avoid getting victimized by holiday shopping crime. Most are things residents and visitors should be doing all year, but make even more sense during the hectic holiday season.

“Always keep your vehicle locked,” said Dods. “And don’t leave your packages and purchases in plain sight. Put them in the trunk if you can, or if you have an SUV, try to cover them with something. Criminals tend to lurk around parking lots and garages and they’ll try doors to see if they’re unlocked.”

Waters said keeping car doors locked is the simplest, safest way to avoid being victimized.

“By all means, keep your car doors locked,” she said. “We can’t stress enough these are crimes of opportunity. Don’t provide an opportunity by leaving your car full of packages unlocked.”

Of course, law enforcement officials urge holiday shoppers to park in well-lit areas around other vehicles when possible and be aware of who and what is around them as they walk to and from stores or malls. Dods said it’s important to remember where one parked when they went into a store or shopping center so they aren’t wandering around with an armful of packages when they come out. Most parking lots are marked with signage of some sort for this purpose.

In addition, shoppers are urged to be prepared to find their cars and get in and out quickly.

“As you’re approaching your vehicle, have the keys ready so you’re not standing out there fumbling around for them with a bunch of packages in your arms,” he said. “If possible, unlock your car as you’re approaching it. Don’t let yourself become an easy target.”

Waters agreed and reminded shoppers to take advantage remote door locks and the built-in alarm systems that typically accompany them.

“Most car keys these days are equipped with remote locks and shoppers should be prepared to use them as they walk to their vehicles,” she said. “They also have an alarm of sorts right on the key in most cases. Keep your finger on that alarm button as you walk to your car and don’t be afraid to use it if you see something suspicious or fell uneasy about a situation.”

Dods said the alarm or panic button on a vehicle key can be a worried shopper’s best friend.

“You have a great tool right on your keys,” he said. “Everyone turns around and looks when those alarms go off. Not only do you get other shoppers looking in your direction, but any criminal element will likely turn tail and avoid going near them.”

Much of the advice focused on getting to and from the stores or mall safely, but local law enforcement agencies also offered a few tips for inside the establishments.

“Keep your wallets and purses where you can see them and get to them easily and where others cannot,” said Dods. “Make sure you put your credit cards back in a safe place when you’re done using them and keep your receipts. Check your account balances often to be sure your purchases are correct and try not to flaunt a lot of cash. People take notice of that.”

Waters agreed plastic was the safest way to shop during the holiday season.

“Don’t carry an excessive amount of cash,” she said. “When you pull out a wad of cash, you could be making yourself a target further down the road. We always encourage people to use credit cards because they can be canceled if stolen and  the purchases can be safely tracked.”