By Ed Brock
Tywanda Benson of Jonesboro considers herself to be a very safe shopper.
"When I go out I shop at one place so I don't have to leave stuff in the car," Benson said. "Even if you leave it in the trunk crooks can get it."
That's the kind of thinking law enforcement officials in Clayton and Henry County are encouraging.
"Be on extra guard this time of year when we're most vulnerable because we're all in a hurry," Henry County Police Lt. Joe Tammaro said.
Christmas shoppers are already swarming around the Tanger Outlet Center in Locust Grove and Southlake Mall in Morrow. Burglaries are down in Morrow (from nine last November to zero in the same month this year) and there was a 22 percent decrease in the number of larcenies (shoplifting and similar crimes) for the same time frame, Morrow police Maj. Charlie Sewell said. However, the number of robberies is about the same, so Sewell has some tips for shoppers.
Carrying armloads of presents to a car is a signal to thieves, Sewell said, and like Benson said putting them in the trunk is no guarantee of safety.
"So once you put them in the trunk of your car we want you to find another spot," Sewell said.
And make sure that second spot isn't nearby.
Presents and other valuables should not be left inside the passenger area of the vehicle where they are visible from the outside.
Women should avoid carrying pocketbooks if possible, opting for a "fanny pack" or just putting cash and credit cards in a pocket instead. If the purse is simply a must have, then pay attention to it.
"One of the most common things I've seen is that women put their pocketbook in a shopping cart and then turn their heads," Sewell said.
Thieves often work in pairs, one to distract the victim while the other goes into her purse to steal her wallet. Shoppers should also be wary of the scam called a "pigeon drop" that is especially popular this time of year.
In a pigeon drop the con-artists approach their victim and say that they had just found a large sum of money that they will split with the victim, Sewell said. However, first the victim has to put up some "good faith money" for one reason or another, and when they do the con-artists disappear and leave the victim with nothing.
Another scam to watch out for is a bump and grab in which one con-artist bumps the back of a vehicle and when the driver gets out to check the damage another thief enters the victim's car and takes wallets or other valuables and sometimes the car.
When shopping alone women should try to go out with a group of other people when returning to their car, they should park in a well-lit area and should check inside their car and under the tires before getting in and driving away.
"If something is under your tire it may cause it to go flat in an isolated area," Sewell said.
Men should wrap their wallets with two or three rubber bands and put them in a front pocket to avoid having it picked.
Don't carry large sums of cash and pay attention to your credit card, Tammaro said.
"Treat it as gold and keep it very close to you," Tammaro said.
By the same token, be aware of whether or not the card number is on a receipt before disposing of the receipt. It's important to keep one step ahead of the criminals and watch out for deals that are too good to be true, Tammaro said.
"Be very leery of strangers and people selling things in parking lots," Tammaro said. "Don't fall for any gimmicks."
The same caution should be taken at home, Tammaro said, by keeping lights on and bushes trimmed down.
Safety is a priority for Tanger Outlet, General Manager Barbi Baker said. Henry County and Locust Grove police patrol the parking lot constantly and Baker works with employees of the stores in the shopping center so they will be alert to possible crimes.
The center also takes care to protect those employees as well by leaving the parking lot lights on until everybody leaves.
"We basically watch out for each other to make sure when they're exiting their stores everything is clear and safe," Baker said.