With people stressing out while rushing to do their holiday shopping, this is the perfect opportunity for crooks to do some of their biggest business during the holiday season.
Local law enforcement officials believe people caught up in the holiday season become easy targets and they don't realize they sometimes make a criminal's job easier. After interviewing career criminals who make a living out of knowing how, when and where to do their best holiday stealing, they offered tips that shouldn't be taken lightly.
"Tis the season," Brazil City Police Chief Terry Harrison said about the possibility of being a victim of holiday crime. "People really need to heighten their awareness during this time of the year."
Harrison and Clay County Sheriff Mike Heaton both urge people to be aware of their surroundings and look for suspicious people while shopping or traveling during the upcoming holiday season.
"Women shouldn't leave purses and men shouldn't leave their coats with wallets inside unattended in shopping carts," Harrison said. "Always keep your car locked, even if parked at home in the driveway."
Heaton agrees and added that shoppers shouldn't "leave packages from shopping trips in the open inside a vehicle, put the items in the trunk or at least cover them up if they have to be put inside a vehicle so they can't be seen."
Some tips for shoppers to consider that might lesson the possibility of falling prey to a yuletide criminal, include:
* Remember that there is safety in numbers, so take a friend or family member holiday shopping,
* Park in well lighted areas, remember where the car is parked and when returning with packages after shopping be prepared to enter the vehicle quickly with your keys in your hands. Also, know where the facility's security office is located in case of emergency,
* Don't leave car phones, purses, CD cases, purchased merchandise or any other item of value where it can be easily seen inside a vehicle,
* Officials recommend shoppers pay for their purchases with checks, credit and charge or debit cards and avoid carrying large amounts of cash while shopping. (Always remember to retrieve your card from the cashier after a purchase.) Men should carry wallets in a secure front pocket to reduce the chances of being pick-pocketed,
* When using an ATM machine, whether day or night, pick a machine that is well lit and visible to passing traffic while paying attention to any suspicious activity near the machine. If anyone is lurking nearby the ATM, pass it up and find another, and
* When shopping with children, in the event you get separated, instruct children to look for a security guard or police officer, or go to the customer service desk where people are trained to help.
Once the shopping is done, Christmas packages shouldn't only be kept from curious children but also from prying eyes of criminals on the outside of the home looking in.
"It might look nice, but it makes a home an easy target for a window-shopping criminal," Heaton said adding that after presents are opened people still need to consider safety. "When people set out the trash after opening presents that they are showing criminals a shopping list of new items available inside their home," he said, urging people to bag every piece of the trash before setting it out. "After Christmas, all a criminal has to do is drive around town to do their shopping."
Another pesky problem some homeowners face during the holiday season is the theft of holiday yard ornaments and display lights.
"I recommend that people place decorations, especially those inflatable ornaments, as close to their homes as possible," Harrison said about the several criminal mischief reports involving holiday decorations that his department responds to during the holiday season. "It would also be a good idea to place some form of identification on yard ornaments in case something is stolen, that way we can return it to the rightful owner."
People who will be away for extended periods of time during the holidays also need to take extra precautions.?
"It's always a good idea to let a trusted neighbor know you're going to be gone," Heaton said. "They can help keep an eye on things around your home."?
Officials agree that notifying the police and sheriff's departments about departure and return dates, while including a contact number so authorities can contact homeowners in case of an emergency, is a good idea.?
Other home safety tips include:
* Do not announce on an answering machine that a home will be vacant for any reason,
* Suspend mail, newspaper and other regular deliveries or arrange for a trusted neighbor to pick up these items until a homeowner returns, and
* Lock all doors and windows using timer lights to make a vacant house look lived-in while the residents are away. If a house sitter is not an option, have a neighbor park their car in the driveway.
"It's unfortunate that we have to think this way," Harrison said about holiday crime. "But it is a fact of life."