The holiday season isn't known just for sales, crowded parking lots and marathon shopping trips.
It's also a time for increased property crimes such as car break-ins, Columbia County sheriff's Sgt. Paul Burks said.
"The majority of property crimes increase during the holiday season," said Burks, who leads the sheriff's office's Crime Suppression Unit. "Entering autos is one of the big ones and one my unit is concerned about."
Most car break-ins occur in crowded retail parking lots, he said, where thieves often break into cars to steal newly bought merchandise, purses and wallets. Financial desperation during the holidays and often just the temptation and opportunity drive thieves, Burks said.
"I walk through the parking lots and look, and there are cars with TVs in the back or VCRs or electronic toys just in plain view,'' Burks said. "It is pretty much just asking for trouble when it's just there out in the open for the taking.''
Burks and his team said they are working extra hard to protect shoppers in problem areas. Just because shoppers don't see blue lights and marked patrol cars doesn't mean they are not protected, he said, adding that deputies often patrol lots in unmarked cars, sitting and watching for suspicious activity.
Burks said the most helpful thing shoppers can do is to lock car doors and put merchandise or purses in the trunk so they cannot be easily seen through the windows. If shoppers have to leave items in their vehicles, the items should be hidden or covered, Burks said.
"They can be in and out of a car in no time," Burks said. "They'll pop a lock or break a window."
But cars aren't the only target this time of year, said Chief Jerry Baldwin, of the Harlem Department of Public Safety.
A shopper encumbered with shopping bags digging through a purse looking for car keys can make an easy target for a personal attack.
"The biggest thing is being alert and aware of your surroundings to protect yourself and your family," Baldwin said.
Baldwin said women should be especially aware of who and what is around them and have car keys ready when walking to the car. If on a long shopping trip, make several trips to put merchandise in the car trunk to avoid carrying a cumbersome load of bags, he said.
Women often leave their purses in the child seat of shopping carts, Burks said, making them easy to forget and an easy target while loading bags into a car.
Baldwin said to look inside the car before entering, keep the doors locked and keep a cell phone and a deterrent such as pepper spray handy.
"Pepper spray, it's wonderful," Baldwin said. "However, it can be used against you, taken away from you and used on you when you're incapacitated."
If you are the victim of a robbery, Burks said, give the robber whatever he wants - a purse, wallet, bags or your car.
In the case of a personal attack, not just a robbery, Baldwin said to fight back, make eye contact with the assailant and get attention by screaming or blowing an emergency whistle.
"If it is a physical attack on a person, make a scene and get some attention," Burks said.
If there is someone sitting in a nearby car or otherwise acting suspicious or making you uncomfortable, go back inside the store and get an escort or call the sheriff's office, Burks said.
"Don't go shopping by yourself. Bring a friend or family member. It's a huge safety measure,'' Burks said.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.