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.
To prevent customers from becoming crime statistics, Westside malls have beefed up their security staffs during the holiday season.
Although mall officials declined to disclose exactly how many guards they have on duty, they said they have increased their security staffs by as much as 50% for the holidays.
Scott Laslo, general manager of the Fox Hills Mall, said his security staff has been increased 25% with the heaviest coverage during the busy evening and weekend shopping times.
In addition, he said, Fox Hills has added a new communications system that enables the Culver City Police Department to monitor the guards' radio frequency so police officers can respond immediately in case of emergency.
Michael Strle, general manager of Century City Shopping Center, said that the security staff has been increased primarily to handle added traffic in the garage. But he said the additional guards have a side effect on security: "The high visibility (of the security force) does act as a deterrent to crime."
At Santa Monica Place, the security force has "about doubled" and the presence of guards discourages crime, said Sandy Lewis, manager of retail operations. "The more people we have and the more visible they are, the less crime we will have," he said.
Security staffs also have been increased at the Westside Pavilion and at the Beverly Center to accommodate the increase in shoppers, spokesmen said.
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.
- Lock your car door and take your keys, even if you only expect to be gone a few minutes. "A couple of months ago, we timed a guy on how long it would take for him to break into a car," Cook said. "To jimmy the door on a Porsche, reach in, grab the Blaupunkt stereo and go running down the street took this guy seven seconds."
Cook said Los Angeles police use Explorer Scouts to leave notes on the dashboards of cars with unlocked doors. "In effect it says, 'Hey dummy, don't leave your car unlocked,' " Cook said. If the keys are left in the ignition, the Scout will remove them and leave a note advising the owner where they can be picked up.
In general, police advise customers just to stay alert.
"Did you ever watch people's faces while they're shopping?" Cook asked. "They walk around in a fog. They're fighting through the crowds, looking at Christmas displays, listening to the music. Meanwhile, their purses are dangling from their shoulders, wallets in plain view, packages in their arms. They're perfect pigeons.
"If a criminal really wants your goods, he's going to get them," Cook said. "But there are a lot of things you can do to discourage them."