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By Hector Gonzalez
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December 17, 2014--With a little more than week left before Christmas, now is the time when shoppers rushing to buy last-minute gifts should be on extra guard against thieves who specifically target the distracted and prey on people who get careless, Santa Monica police warned this week.

It could be as simple as leaving a purse on a chair momentarily, or putting packages on the front seat of a vehicle where they’re clearly visible, or just opening a wallet with cash around strangers—thieves are keen this time of year to such opportunities, say local police officials.

Cops call such thefts “crimes of opportunity,” and instances typically jump significantly between Thanksgiving and the New Year, Santa Monica police say.
“Most criminals are opportunists,” said Lauralee Asch, lead crime prevention coordinator for the Santa Monica Police Department. “They don’t know who they’re going to target until they actually see their victim.”

Women, for example, often put their purses down on the ground or on a chair while taking a lunch break from shopping, leaving the door open to an opportunistic thief, Asch said.

“It’s a hectic time. You have a lot of bags and you have your purse. It’s easy to forget. Being cognizant of your surroundings is important,” she said.

Asch also recommended shoppers not carry large amounts of cash on them.
“Keep an eye on where your credit cards are, too,” she advised.

A main tactic police use during Christmastime to deter crimes of opportunity is beefing up their profile around shopping areas, said Officer Scott McGee, a neighborhood resource office.

Every year at this time, the SMPD deploys eight extra officers and a sergeant—beyond the eight officers who patrol on bikes year-round—to the downtown area, the Third Street Promenade and other shopping areas from Pacific Palisades Park to 7th Street and from Wilshire to Broadway, said McGee, a nine-year veteran who regularly works “holiday patrol.”

 “During the holidays, we see an increase in shoppers and tourism, and that’s when we start to deploy additional personnel, on foot and in patrol cars, with the idea of curbing holiday crime,” he said.

Although crime is down overall in the City, according to McGee, police believe having an extra presence of officers “is part of the reason why it stays down, especially during the holidays.”

“Our officers are on foot, talking to people, talking shoppers, and also going into the stores and making their presence there by talking to merchants,” said McGee. “We want to make our presence known so thieves don’t think they can come here to do their crimes.”

Officers also watch out for and warn merchants about suspicious people walking around malls with empty shopping bags, which thieves often use to shoplift. Police call them “booster bags,” McGee said.

“Sometimes someone will be walking around on Third Street and they’ll have Victoria’s Secret bags or bags from some of the stores around there, and they’ll use them as booster bags,” he said.

For shoppers, McGee and other holiday patrol officers offer simple but important tips.

“The big one is, lock your cars,” McGee said. “Believe it or not, that’s still a big problem. People when they’re rushed tend to forget to lock their cars or roll up their windows. And don’t leave packages clearly visible. The rule is, ‘lock it, hide it, keep it.”’

Thefts from cars happen year-round, but during the holidays “it’s just exaggerated,” Asch said.

“People leave their Ipads, their purchases, their valuables, in plain sight, which is just too easy. It means that a glass window is the only thing between your stuff and someone who wants to take your stuff,” she said.

Holiday patrol officers also have noted a spike this Christmas season in “grab and run” thefts, in which a thief targets a store where merchandise is displayed near an entrance, McGee said.

A thief “can just grab the items and run off,” he added, often to a partner waiting in a nearby getaway car.

“We have seen people working in crews, talking to each on cell phones, following people,” said McGee. “In the past—I haven’t seen it so far this year—but in the past, some thieves would follow people with computers products from the Apple store. (Thieves) will try to see if (customers) leave the products in their cars.”

The best advice, according to Asch: “Be aware of your surroundings.”

“People have to realize that they are their own best defense and they are our best witnesses, because police officers can’t be everywhere at all times,” said Asch. “So if you see something suspicious, or you see somebody watching other people, bring it to our attention. Don’t wait until after the fact.”

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