Authorities Outline Holiday Shopping Safety Tips

BERLIN — With Black Friday and Cyber Monday now a fading memory, local residents and visitors are flocking to area shopping centers, prompting local law enforcement officials this week to issue a few common sense reminders to ensure they, and their packages, make it home safely.

With the calendar changing to December last weekend, the holiday shopping season is in full swing as thousands flock to area malls and shopping centers. 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 their visibility in heavy traffic shopping areas, but residents should be armed with a good dose of common sense and extra vigilance to deter would-be criminals.

“Unfortunately, there is a criminal element looking to take advantage of shoppers armed with packages and wallets full of money that are often distracted and let their guards down during the holidays,” said Ocean City Police spokesman Mike Levy this week. “Fortunately, a few common sense methods can deter criminals and help protect shoppers.”

Of course, common sense should be practiced by shoppers at all times of the year, but with the sheer volume of holiday shopping and the associated criminal element ready to prey on it, the number of incidents spike up during late November and December each year.

Worcester County Sheriff’s Office Colonel Doug Dods said this week many holiday shoppers tend to let their guard down and throw the simplest common sense practices out the window during the hustle and bustle of the season.

“First and foremost, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and keep a close eye on what is going on all around you,” he said. “Most of what we’re seeing are crimes of opportunity. People let their guard down for a second and a would-be criminal is ready to jump at the chance. The best thing to do is make it harder for them by following some basic common sense practices.”

Many of the holiday shopping-related crimes take place in dark or dimly lit parking lots away from other shoppers, according to Levy. He suggested a few basic practices to prevent becoming a victim.

“Try to park in well-lit areas near the entrance if possible,” he said. “Make a note of wear you parked so you’re not stumbling around in the dark looking for your car when you come out with an arm full of packages.”

Levy also had a few reminders for protecting one’s personal property and preventing a possible crime.

“Keep your keys in your hand while you walk to the car so you’re not out there fumbling through your pockets or purse while you’re out there,” he said. “Also, remember most keys are now equipped with a personal alarm system in the form of a panic button. If you’re approached or feel uncomfortable, don’t wait to use that button and sound an alarm so others will be alerted in the area. For women, carry a cell phone in a pocket and not in your purse so if someone grabs your purse, you’re not out there without a phone.”

Once shoppers get to their cars, they are still vulnerable thefts and break-ins if they don’t make an attempt to conceal their packages, said Dods.

“When possible, put packages in the trunk, or in the back in an SUV and try to cover them up,” he said. “Criminals see a seat full of packages and it’s an invitation to break in and steal them. Some criminals we’ve arrested have said they just walked through a mall parking lot trying doors until they found one unlocked.”

A fairly new wrinkle for holiday shopping predators in recent years has been an increase in Internet-related crime. With more and more shoppers headed to the computer instead of the mall, as indicated by a reportedly robust Cyber Monday last week, savvy criminals are finding a way to prey on them as well.

“We’re seeing cases of scammers sending emails to people reminding them of a package they’re waiting for and they ask people to open a hyperlink to access their tracking. Opening the link allows criminals to access personal information and account information, for example.”

Ironically, many have resorted to Internet shopping in order to avoid the traditional element and parking lots and malls, only to find a more sophisticated criminal waiting to prey on them.

“We see more and more examples of cyber theft and on-line scams every year,” said Dods. “You have to be just as vigilant, or more vigilant then if you’re going to the store because the threat is not always readily visible. As a general rule, if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is.”

Levy said another possible threat often awaits people right in the stores where they shop. He said there has been an increase in the theft of account numbers and other personal information in recent years.

“Always try to use a major credit card and avoid using a debit card while shopping if possible,” he said. “Debit cards often give thieves an opportunity to gain access to checking and savings accounts. Use a credit card and check your statements often to ensure only those things you have purchased are on there.”