Police said shoppers should keep packages locked in the trunk, rather than left in plain sight in a vehicle.
"Leaving gifts out on the seat of your car is just asking to get a window smashed and gifts stolen," said Phillip Little, Chief Deputy of the Bladen County Sheriff's Department.
While car break-ins are common during the holiday season, police said more aggressive crimes also see an upswing.
Shoppers and travelers should also park in well-lit areas whenever possible, according to Elizabethtown Police Chief Bobby Kinlaw.
"Don't shop alone if you can help it," Kinlaw said. "Be aware of what's happening around you-watch the other people in the parking lot."
Potential purse-snatchers are often easy to spot, Kinlaw said.
"Take a moment to look around as you leave your car or exit the store," he said. "If you see someone lurking around, or if someone just looks suspicious, ask someone in the store to walk to your car with you."
Little said shoppers should have their keys ready before they get to their vehicles, and don't park near large vans.
"If you have your keys out and ready, you don't have to fumble in the dark to unlock the door," he said. "If there's a van nearby, it's very easy for a woman or a child walking by herself to be robbed or even kidnapped."
Stolen checks and
"This is the time of year when we get a lot of forgery related calls," said Bladenboro Police Chief Danny Russ.
Simply checking someone's identification or calling a bank to verify a check can save merchants much time and trouble, Russ said.
"Clerks always ask, 'Is the information on this check correct?'" Russ said. "Is a criminal really going to tell you that he stole a check?"
While verifying a check might take an extra few minutes, Russ said, it's much less expensive than trying to recover the cost of a stolen, forged or worthless check though the court system.
"People understand this is for their own protection," he said.
People should keep close tabs on their wallets, checkbooks and purses, Russ said.
"It's far too easy to grab a wallet out of someone's back pocket, or snatch a pocketbook out of a shopping cart," Russ said. "It's even easier to keep that from happening."
Russ and Kinlaw said counterfeit bills are even more common around the holidays than during the rest of the year.
"We've seen an increase in past years in counterfeit bills," Kinlaw said. "Desktop publishing makes it much easier for people to make their own money."
"When stores get busy," Russ said, "it's easy for a clerk not to check every $20 bill that comes in. They need to take the time to do this-it's much easier to catch the bill before it's passed than to track down the person passing a bill."
Shoplifters are extremely busy around the holidays, officials said. Some retailers even refer to shoplifting as "discount shopping."
"Merchants need to have sufficient people to handle the customers," Little said. "Shoplifters prefer crowds."
Shoplifting gangs also are hard at work during the holidays, Kinlaw said. Such groups will use a lookout in a parking lot, a decoy inside a store, and several people who actually steal the merchandise.
"A good indicator is someone asking for a lot of information about something they obviously have no interest in buying," Kinlaw said.
While a clerk helps the decoy, the shoplifters will conceal items, often after removing alarm tags. The goods are then slipped out of the store.
Thieves also will brazenly walk out of a store carrying larger items, such as DVD players, videocassette recorders, and stereos. A favorite ploy is to pretend to have exchanged an item for another, especially during busy periods.
"Larger stores really need someone at the exit door," Kinlaw said. "Having someone there watching helps deter thieves, and gives a merchant someone close to the door to react when an alarm sounds."
The extra expense, Kinlaw said, is worth it for most merchants.
"Some of these shoplifters are good at what they do," he said. "They're professionals."
Other safety concerns
Shoplifters and purse snatchers aren't the only criminals looking forward to the holiday season.
Property thefts, especially break-ins and burglaries, tend to rise near the holidays as people buy more big-ticket items and tend to stay gone from home longer than usual.
"You need to be careful about displaying gifts near large windows, where anyone can look inside," Little said.
People also need to be sure their homes are secure, according to Donald Kinlaw, White Lake Chief of Police.
"If they plan to be gone for any period of time, they need to make sure their doors and windows are locked," Kinlaw said. "Items like lawnmowers and tools that are kept outside should be locked up as well."
Electronics, jewelry and other easily sold items are the most popular targets for burglars and thieves, Kinlaw said.
"Those big-ticket items are often given as gifts at this time of the year," Kinlaw said, "and the thieves look for them."
Many of White Lake's homes are empty for part of the year, and Kinlaw said it is vital for neighbors to keep an eye on each other's homes.
"If you're going to be out of town for an extended length of time," Kinlaw said, "you should get your newspaper carrier to stop delivery for that time. One of the things crooks look for is a pile of newspapers in the front yard. It's a good indication that nobody's is home."
Little said most agencies will have extra personnel on duty during the holidays. Patrols will be increased, he said, but "common sense and caution help prevent a lot of crimes."
"Where's my mommy?"
Little said parents should be extremely careful with their children when visiting crowded stores and shopping malls.
"Never, ever take your eyes off your children," he said. "It's awfully easy for parents and children to become separated during the shopping season."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children advises that children should know their parents' names and addresses, as well as telephone numbers.
Children should also share an easily remembered code word that tells the child a stranger is authorized by the child's parents to give him or her a ride, or take a lost child back to the parents.
Police say children should be taught to look for a police officer, or shown beforehand where service desks and information booths are located in malls and stores.
"People need to watch their children closely," Russ said.
If a child gets separated from the parents, Russ said, he or she should avoid suspicious strangers.
"It might be that the person is perfectly harmless, and just wants to help," Russ said, "but it might not be that way, either."
One of the simplest self-defense mechanisms for children works for adults as well, Bobby Kinlaw said.
"If you feel threatened," Bobby Kinlaw said, "make a lot of noise."
The NCMEC advises children be taught to point at a potential criminal and shout "Stranger!" Screaming, repeatedly yelling "Help" or calling for police also works.
"Draw attention to yourself," Kinlaw said. "Don't stop until the threat goes away, or you're safe."