A security vehicle cruises the parking lot at the Wal-Mart on Bobby Jones Parkway in Martinez. Stores in the area have increased security measures for the holiday season. The boost of holiday shoppers has brought about an escalation of thefts and robberies.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
As distracted and stressed shoppers hunt for the perfect gift as Christmas quickly approaches, authorities say another group is shopping, too - thieves are shopping for their next unsuspecting victim.
In the past two months, police say, some elderly women have become victims, having either a purse or wallet stolen while shopping in Columbia County.
To prevent such thefts, Columbia County sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris said staying alert while shopping is the best defense.
Rushed and preoccupied shoppers often provide a window of opportunity for thieves by leaving purses and wallets unattended while shopping, he said. The number of wallets and purses stolen from shoppers is increasing as the holidays approach, Morris said.
"It's not just at Wal-Marts and Kmarts," Morris said. "It is in grocery stores. The bottom line is do not leave your valuables unattended. That is the key."
The elderly are frequent targets. In October, a 74-year-old Martinez woman discovered her wallet had been stolen from her purse after returning from shopping at a Martinez grocery store, according to a sheriff's office incident report.
As of early December, nearly $700 in forged checks had been written on the woman's account, the report stated.
Morris said that when thieves steal a credit card, they have a tendency to "burn it up," purchasing as much as possible before the card is reported stolen.
On Nov. 23, a 61-year-old Martinez woman told police her wallet was taken from her purse while she shopped at an Evans retail store. In three weeks, thieves racked up nearly $500 in fraudulent charges to her credit card.
Morris said thieves often target shoppers who are focused on items on the shelves instead of guarding their valuables.
Acting injured or otherwise pretending to need help also might be a ploy thieves use to distract shoppers.
Morris said shoppers should not set valuables down or leave them in a shopping cart. Purses also should stay zipped or fastened closed.
A shopping cart's child safety straps can be fastened around the purse or through its straps as an extra precaution, Morris added.
Carrying purses close to your body and putting wallets in your front pockets or an inside coat pocket can help deter thieves, too, according to the National Crime Prevention Council.
Thieves also have been known to watch parking lots for people loading packages into their vehicles.
Two Martinez women became victims Wednesday night at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Evans. They were loading packages into their vehicle at about 10:30 p.m. when a man jumped from a nearby vehicle, snatched a purse from the shopping cart and sped away.
A witness followed the vehicle and called police. The man and driver were caught soon after the theft and charged with theft by sudden snatch, according to the sheriff's office incident report.
The lot at Wal-Mart on Bobby Jones Expressway is guarded by a 24-hour security patrol and cameras surveilling the entire property, inside the store and out, Victor Duffie, the store's manager, said.
"(The patrol) is for safety, being on the lookout for any potential shoplifters or any problems that could occur," Duffie said. "All in all, just to be proactive."
Lighting also provides more safety.
"The lighting is very important, to make sure the lighting is working around the clock around the whole building for people," Duffie said. "They feel a lot more comfortable with a lot of lighting."
Morris said the number of vehicles broken into in retail parking lots also rises during the holiday season. He suggests locking packages in the trunk.
"Leave nothing in plain view,'' he said.
Shopping Safety Tips
Pay attention to surroundings.
Do not set a purse or wallet down in shopping carts.
Do not walk around with an open, unfastened or unzipped purse.
Do not be distracted by a ploy to draw attention away from valuables.
Park in a well-lighted area.
Do not leave packages or other valuables visible through the car windows.
Do not carry large amounts of cash.
Do not get overburdened with packages; always keep one hand free.
Source: Columbia County Sheriff's Office and the National Crime Prevention Council
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