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For shopping safety: Be aware of your surroundings

COVINGTON -- With all the hustle and bustle of the season, it's easy to forget there are Grinches and worse out there. Law enforcement authorities warn that female shoppers should be vigilant about their safety.

"We're going into the time of the year where it is more advantageous for someone to commit a criminal act. It is mainly because of the opportunities that we create during the shopping season," said Covington Police Department Capt. Ken Malcom, who teaches a course on personal safety throughout the year. "There are probably the same number of criminals out there year-round, but we just create opportunities for them to be successful."

Malcom cited the recent purse-snatching incident at the Covington Walmart, saying there are lessons to be learned from what happened there.

"What we had recently here at Walmart was a boyfriend and girlfriend team traveling and committing similar crimes all over the country," he said. "They would look for somebody who was basically taking what they had purchased and securing it in their car. They would focus on the purse that the victim owned. They were very successful with well over a dozen cases until they got to Covington and we were able to end their criminal enterprise."

Malcom said the typical person when walking from the store to their car with packages will stop at the car to unload and step away from their buggy while unlocking the vehicle.

"While you're doing that, that's an opportunity for a criminal to come by and snatch your purse," he said. "Secure the purse first. That's where all your valuables are that you will continue to need on a daily basis. That's what the thief is going to focus on. They want your purse more than they want your gallon of milk. They're hoping there's cash in the purse or credit cards they can use quickly and discard."

Malcom said an awareness of your surroundings is the key to staying safe and said he suggests employing the "10 second rule" where at each crucial location on a person's journey to and from their vehicle while shopping that a few seconds be taken to check out their surroundings.

"Say you're walking from the store to the car. Take a couple of seconds to look outside the door of the store to see what's going on right outside the door," he said, adding if you see a suspicious person or group of people, don't leave the store. Get someone to accompany you to your car or call 911 to report them.

He said once you're outside the store, pause again for a couple of seconds to scan left and right and see what's going on around you. As you travel closer to your vehicle, take a couple of seconds to glance and see what's happening in that area.

"See if there's any pedestrian traffic, you might glance behind you to see if anybody is following you. When you get to your car, take a couple of seconds to see if somebody is near your car. Make sure nobody's in your car, glance to see if your tires are flat. Then before you put items in your car, take another couple of seconds to see if anybody is approaching you," he said. "With all that, you've taken about 10 seconds."

Malcom cautioned to not be talking on a cellphone while walking into the parking lot because it can be a distraction, causing you to not be watchful.

"We don't want people to be paranoid, but we want them to be aware of what's going on around them," he said.

And, it's the same sort of watchful attitude that should be employed while shopping inside a store.

"It's so easy to walk away from your purse with the number of buggies trying to get through the aisles, so you leave it and step away," he said. "But it only takes a couple of seconds for the opportunist or predator to grab your purse. If you take certain precautions, (the criminal) is going to move on to somebody else because there's always somebody who has their guard down."

Malcom said whenever possible, secure valuables in the trunk of your vehicle, or in the case of an SUV, throw a blanket or something over them so the criminal cannot actually see what you have.

"They don't want to have to work very hard or take a lot of time to look in and see what you've got ... Those people who are trolling the parking lot are going to move on to an easier target. If they're going to take the time to break a window, they want to know there's something in that vehicle of value," he said.

If at all possible, don't carry large amounts of cash, but use cards that can be quickly cancelled if you are robbed.

"And be prepared to defend yourself, but also be prepared to give up anything that you have other than your life or another innocent life," he said. "If somebody attempts to rob you, take your wallet, your purse, any merchandise you may have, let it go. Then become a good witness."

Malcom gave the example of his late mother who was mugged and robbed in a grocery store parking lot some years ago.

"This was a horrifying experience for my mom who was in her late 60s at the time, but what she did next was heroic. He had knocked her down and grabbed her purse, but she rolled over and saw the guy drive off and saw his tag number and remembered it by repeating the number over and over," he said.

A passerby saw her, realized what had happened and wrote the tag number down that she kept repeating. She was able to give the information to the police. That night while watching the 11 p.m. newscast, she saw where the thief had been captured.

"The reason they got the guy is because she remembered the tag number," Malcom said.

Police were able to go to his house, and although he fled and they got into a chase, they caught him and found his mother's purse and six other purses in the back seat of his car. Malcom's mother was the seventh victim that day, but she was the only one who was able to stop him by giving the police solid information to follow up.

"I encourage people if you're ever a victim, remain calm and do your best to be a good witness," he said. "Remember as much as you can about the person -- scars, tattoos, age, weight, hair color and clothing, which is important, but not as important as the others. Notice the direction of travel. If you can say the bad guy went east, we can focus our patrol in that area."

Finally, he said to always trust your instincts.

"Humans are the only animal on the face of the earth that suppress fear. We go into a bad situation knowing we're walking into it, but thinking, it's not going to happen to me," he said, adding that when the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, there's a reason for it. "Recognize those fears and start preparing yourself to react. If at all possible escape, but if not, become a good witness."

Malcom said to expect higher visibility of patrols in congested shopping areas during the season, as often just the sight of a patrol car will interrupt a thief's plans. Also, he asked that if anyone sees anything they deem suspicious to call 911 and stay on the line with the operator and give as much information as possible. Also, use the mobile app called tipsubmit to let officers know what is going on.

"We strongly urge citizens to be our eyes and ears if they see anything going on. We all need to look out for each other. There are a limited number of police officers and we need our citizens to help us out," he said.