Although most shoppers are well aware of potential dangers during the holiday season, local law enforcement officials said it can't hurt to heed some friendly reminders when it comes to keeping one's belongings, purchases and self safe.
Austintown Police Chief Robert Gavalier acknowledged that traditionally, many people associate the holidays with an increase in crime.
"But fortunately, that hasn't really been the case, at least not in recent years and in our area," he said. "I think more and more people are aware of what can happen so they take more precautions to avoid it, which is a good thing."
Ka’Daja Walker, left, and her mother, Crystal Spiva-Walker, shop for Christmas presents and holiday supplies Monday afternoon at the Eastwood Mall Complex.
Still, as Gavalier and Niles Police Chief Robert J. Hinton pointed out, stores attract more shoppers as the holidays get closer. They said shoplifters, purse-snatchers and identity thieves remain areas of concern.
"With more people out and about, you have the potential for more crime,'' Hinton said. "You have more people out at the mall and other shopping areas this time of year, which can increase the risks of being victimized."
Police said staying alert and paying attention to your surroundings at all times is a good step to take to avoid becoming a victim.
"If you're in line or at a counter and using a credit card, make sure you pay attention if you think someone is trying to get your information from your card or receipt," Gavalier said. "Just always be aware of who's around you."
Likewise, pay attention to who's around your vehicle as you're trying to load packages into your trunk.
"And try not to load yourself up with too many packages," Hinton said. "Sometimes a thief will strike when you're loaded up with packages, when you have to put something down or turn away briefly or you're distracted by a child. It doesn't take long. They can move in pretty fast."
Police suggest that you don't shop alone and that you only carry as much money as you think you will need.
Rosemarie Parisi said she applies those principles to her own shopping habits.
"Sometimes you might think it would be a lot quicker and you can get more done if you go alone," the Girard woman said. "But if someone else can go with you it's a lot better."
Parisi spent some time shopping at Eastwood Mall in Niles with a friend this week. She said she takes shopping safety advice seriously and applies those tips when she can.
"It's important to be vigilant and try to pay attention to what's going on around you," she said. "I try to shop during the day. I don't shop alone at night anymore. I park close to entrances. I keep my purse strap over my shoulder. I do what I can."
Gavalier said some local stores increase security around the holidays in an effort to stave off crime.
"They hire off-duty police officers to patrol inside the store, outside and in the parking lot, so that helps," he said.
Hinton said increased public awareness has helped many people avoid becoming victims and to be on look out for could-be thieves.
"Often the best defense is going with your instinct and using your own common sense," he said. "Pay attention, take precautions, be prepared. It really is better to be safe than sorry. You'll find that the general rule is that most (criminals) look for convenient, easy targets. Make it as hard for them as possible. Don't be an easy target."
Teri Smith said she learned a few years ago the importance of parking close to the store entrances, near lighted areas, and keeping packages out of sight. The Youngstown woman said she was at a Pennsylvania shopping center when she became a crime victim.
"I wasn't even thinking and I realized I had forgotten something, so I put the gifts I had purchased on the back seat of my car," she said. "It had been light out when I went in and out the first time, but when I came out of the store the second time it had already gotten kind of dark. A back window was broken, my packages, some CDs and a few other things were taken. I'm a lot more careful now."
Ken Kollar, manager at Eastwood Mall, said that although his staff works year-round to deter crime, security and services are increased during the holidays.
"The main thing we do is to stay visible," he explained. "We want people, the good people as well as the bad people, to see us as much as possible. We let them know we're here."
Kollar said mall security is on-hand to walk customers to their cars, patrol inside and outside the mall including the parking lots. A few years ago the mall established a canine patrol.
"We'll also help you carry your packages and help you find your car if you can't remember where you parked it," he said.
He said the efforts have helped as crime incidents at the mall have steadily declined over the past few years. He advises customers to make several trips to their vehicles instead of loading up with packages.
"Have your keys handy and remember where you parked," he said. "If you can't remember where you parked ask security for help. You don't want to be wandering around the parking lot, especially loaded up with packages, looking lost or distracted because you can't find your car. And go out the entrance you came in, the one closest to your car."
Also, don't flash a lot of cash and contact security immediately if you become a victim, he added.
"Mall security is here to help, and on site," he said. "You can call 911 as well. But by all means, contact mall security. Security can be there, in many cases, in a matter of seconds.
"The main things is don't put yourself in a position for someone to take advantage of you. Today's world is different than it used to be, no matter where you are. Crime very often is about opportunity. Do everything you can to avoid giving anyone the opportunity."