ESCANABA - With the holiday season here, shoppers everywhere are buying gifts for friends and loved ones. Unfortunately, celebrations and good cheer can be cut short when shoppers become victims of opportunistic criminals.
While thefts from vehicles are common in the U.P. all year long, the temptation of newly-purchased gifts sitting in unattended cars leads to a rise in the number of thefts from automobiles during the holiday season.
"You need to keep those things covered, or better yet locked in the trunk," said Delta County Sheriff Gary Ballweg, who added thieves frequently steal older items left in cars believing that they are new and recently purchased.
According to Ballweg, the majority of thefts from motor vehicles occur when the doors are left unlocked. Thieves will break windows to reach items in locked cars, however, this is less common.
While having a car alarm does deter thieves, many people get used to hearing the alarms and begin to ignore them. "This time of year you should be a good Samaritan and report it to someone inside the business or store," said Ballweg.
Ballweg also recommends shoppers park in well lit areas as close to the store as possible. In addition to locking car doors and hiding purchases in the trunk, shoppers should have their keys in hand, ready to open car doors when returning to their vehicles.
Women who carry purses while shopping should make sure to keep their purse with them at all times. "Don't leave your purse in your cart while you're walking around looking at stuff," said Ballweg. "Keep it on your arm or on your shoulder or better yet leave it at home and just bring your credit card and ID."
Because credit card, debit cards and checkbooks leave a paper trail, they are generally safer for shoppers to carry. However, shopping with a credit card does increase the risk of identity theft, especially when purchases are made online.
To insure that credit card statements are accurate, the National Crime Prevention Council suggests shoppers store receipts in a file folder and compare the saved receipts to credit card and bank statements when they arrive.
As an added layer of protection, some banks and credit card companies allow shoppers to create "disposable credit cards," which mask a shopper's credit card number and expire after a period of time. The NCPC recommends using these mask numbers for online stores or auction sites, however, they are not available from all credit card companies.
Whether gifts come from online stores are mailed from friends and loved ones, packages left by mail carriers are at a heightened risk of theft during the holiday season.
According to the United States Postal Service, roughly half of the 5,500 arrests made by postal Inspectors in 2011 involved mail theft. To ensure online shoppers receive their holiday packages, Ballweg recommends using tracking numbers to monitor the progress of purchases.
"You should be expecting those packages, and if you're not going to be around, have a neighbor pick them up," he said. If it is impossible to have someone available to pick up a package, consider having the shipment rerouted to another address.
Even small changes in shopping habits could make the difference between keeping your packages and losing them to criminals. "Be a little extra cautious ... there are some desperate people out there who would do just about anything," said Ballweg.