In the frenzy of holiday frivolity, nobody wants to think about crime. But police records show that shoppers are more likely to get their wallets lifted, purses snatched, packages heisted and cars stolen during this season than at any other time of the year.
Southern California, with its combination of balmy winter weather and some of the nation's busiest malls, draws criminals from throughout the country, according to Los Angeles Police Sgt. Dan Cook, who said crime generally increases about 10% during the holiday season.
"If it's any comfort, you're less likely to be killed," Cook said. "The holidays is our lowest time for murders. But every kind of theft goes up in December."
Last December, Cook said, robberies, burglaries and larcenies in Los Angeles increased to 12,000, from about 10,000 in November. December also is the month with the most car thefts.
Can Be Violent
And while most of these crimes involve snatching a purse or breaking into a car to steal Christmas presents, police warn that the crimes can turn violent. That happened last week when Hawthorne Councilman David York was shot and critically injured during a car theft in the parking lot of the Galleria at South Bay in Redondo Beach.
To prevent customers from becoming crime statistics, South Bay malls are increasing security with everything from mounted police patrols to uniformed escorts.
At Carson Mall, mounted sheriff's deputies are patrolling parking lots while security guards scan lots from the mall's rooftop, said assistant manager Carol Dominguez.
"We have a pretty intensive security system," Dominguez said, "probably more so than other malls, but we find it works. Last year, with this program, we had no major incident of crime for the holidays, so we feel it's worth it."
Patrols Beefed Up
Dominguez said other security measures include include extra sheriff's deputies and security guards patrolling the mall, a closed-circuit television monitoring system and brighter lighting in the parking lots.
The Galleria at South Bay uses security guards around the clock to patrol its parking lots on foot and by car, said general manager Dan McNeer.
Special teams of security guards and Redondo Beach police are patrolling the mall throughout the holidays, McNeer said, and the mall has hired off-duty police officers for additional security. McNeer called the shooting of York "unfortunate," but added that he did not trace it to any shortcoming in the mall's security system.
In addition, he said, shoppers may request a security escort to their cars at the mall's information booth.
Other shopping centers, such as Del Amo Fashion Center and Old Towne Mall in Torrance, also have added security to their malls and parking lots. But, as Old Towne security director Bob Lee warns, "No matter how many security guards we have, crime gets so bad during the holidays it just can't be stopped. There are too many people who aren't aware of their surroundings and they become easy marks."
Staying alert and aware, police say, is the most important measure shoppers can take to protect themselves against crime.
To heighten that awareness, the Torrance Police Department is showing a film on crime prevention tips for shoppers over the local cable channel throughout the holidays, said Sgt. Wally Murker. In addition, he said, a special shopping center detail, organized in September, is patrolling Torrance malls, including the smaller ones, and offering special training to security guards.
Police and security guards alike, however, maintain that such measures should not lull shoppers into a false sense of security.
Tips for Shoppers
"A big part of crime prevention rests with the shopper," the Los Angeles Police Department's Cook said. "There are a lot of things consumers can do to make sure they don't become victims."
Among the recommendations of police and security officials:
- Walk down aisles of parking lots instead of between cars. Muggers often lurk between parked cars, Cook warned.
- Keep purchases in the trunk, out of sight.
- Avoid walking out of the mall alone, and don't carry too many bags at once. "Shoppers carrying armfuls of packages are not paying attention to what's going on around them," Cook said. "Thieves look for that."
- Keep wallets, credit cards and checkbooks separately. "That way, if someone grabs your purse, you won't lose everything," Murker said. "And keep a separate listing of your credit card numbers at home in case they do get stolen."
- Don't dump your purse, wallet or credit card into the shopping bag. "I can't tell you how many customers lose these items this way," McNeer said.
- Be extra careful when walking in crowds. "Lots of crooks work in teams," Cook said. "One bumps you while the other lifts your wallet. You have to constantly be aware of what's around you.
- Try not to shop alone. "Go with a friend and go during the day if it's at all possible," Murker said.