Let's cut right to the cliché: Southern California is a land of eternal sunshine, with friendly, honest inhabitants and as many paths to good health, peace and prosperity as a Malibu Canyon health spa. But unless you've been living in an orgone box and your reading has been confined to antique Southern Pacific Railroad pamphlets, you know this to be as accurate as a major studio's balance sheet.
In point of socio-statistical fact, Southern California can be a treacherous place. According to a recent survey factoring rates of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and motor vehicle theft, California is the 10th most dangerous state in the nation. It's populated by shysters, muggers, gangsters, ragers and incompetent Range Rover repairpersons. True, we are not cursed with road salt, hurricanes, locusts, snow emergency routes, overcrowded subway trains, crooked aldermen, golf course alligators, chain gangs or humidity.
But in a place where even the sunshine that kisses the citrus can wreak havoc among the unwary, unheeding and skimpily clad, the ultimate aim of every prudent Southern Californian should be to calculate the risks, pry common sense from paranoia, and be ready to defend oneself at all times.
IF SOMEONE STEALS YOUR ...
Cellphone The most important thing to remember: When you call your wireless carrier to inform them of your loss, ask them to suspend—got that? suspend—your account rather than deactivate it. "If your account is canceled you lose your phone number, and then it's given out randomly to another customer," says Verizon spokesman Ken Muché. Also, he adds, try to report the loss as soon as possible. After, say, 30 days or so, wireless providers get testy about swallowing $4,000 worth of purloined calls to Cartagena or Bangalore.
Identity The very worst thing to do, says Linda Foley, co-executive director of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, is pull the covers over your head and pretend bad things won't happen. They will. Unless you prefer going bankrupt or being arrested for another person's crimes to running a difficult and emotionally draining gantlet, you need to move fast. If your wallet or Social Security card is stolen, if you notice strange charges and debits on your charge or bank accounts, if your checks or credit card purchases are mysteriously refused, you may be the victim of identity theft. The steps for dealing with each situation are too numerous and complicated to list, but you can go directly to http://www.idtheftcenter.org or call the ITRC at (858) 693-7935. The California Department of Consumer Affairs also will walk you through the odious process at http://www.privacyprotection.ca.gov .
Car Your worst move: Assume that you forgot where you parked your car last night, go back inside and plop two Alka-Seltzer tablets into a jelly glass. Your second worst: Dragoon a friend into driving you around the neighborhood hoping to locate it. Instead, notify the police immediately, even if it's just to learn that you walked home from the party or your illegally parked car was towed, says Det. Bob Graybill, head of the LAPD auto theft task force for the San Fernando Valley. "About 75% of cars are stolen by joyriders, and the rest go to chop shops or sit on the street to be vandalized," he says. "The faster you act the better the odds" that your car won't get chopped. Graybill adds that if your car is equipped with an electronic location device such as LoJack or OnStar, make that the first thing you mention to the police; it'll drive recovery of your car to the top of the cops' priority list. And, Graybill says, you surely couldn't have been so dense as to leave your wallet—or any document with your Social Security number—in the vehicle. If so, reread the listing for Identity Theft.
Mail Anyone who steals your mail is probably using it to steal your identity (see above)—and that's very bad. Your first step is to call or visit your local post office to determine if there's an internal mix-up, or if some special someone has forged a vacation hold or change of address form in your name. If that doesn't clear things up, contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Its local office is in Pasadena; call (626) 405-1200 or (800) 729-3324.
Screenplay Naturally, you've registered your script with the Writers Guild of America, and written a date-stamped memo for your files every time you've taken a meeting about it with a producer. Heard that Bjork and Adam Sandler are on a project that sounds awfully familiar? Your next act is to hire an attorney who specializes in plagiarism. "If he takes it on contingency," says Cheryl Rhoden, a WGA assistant executive director, "you know you've got a good case."
IF YOU'RE ATTACKED BY A ...
Dog Pepper spray? No way, says dog trainer/author/TV personality Matthew "Uncle Matty" Margolis. "You have to hit him right in the eyes," he says. "Nobody's aim is that good." He suggests that you stand your ground, make a loud noise—preferably with a whistle taken along for that purpose—and turn to the left or right to present a smaller profile. If the dog keeps coming, try to place an object—such as an umbrella, backpack or bicycle—between you and the dog. Your last resort is to drop into a fetal position with your hands over your face. Margolis says "most dogs bite once, then stop."
Mountain Lion The good news, according to the California Department of Fish and Game: Since 1890 there have been only 15 reported mountain lion attacks on people. The not-so-good: There have been three attacks (two in Orange County) since January 2004. If you suspect a big cat has your number, a DFG brochure on the subject offers some helpful—though admittedly experimental—suggestions. They're available at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/news/issues/lion.html
Carjacker Keep that sixth sense turned on, says Greg Boles, a retired LAPD detective and now global director of threat management for the risk consulting firm Kroll Inc. Notice when you're being followed. When your car is stopped at a traffic signal, try to keep a car length or two of space around you to keep open a possible escape route. If there is space, and the carjacker looms, hit the gas and go. If not, don't trust your door locks or closed windows to stop a bullet or even a fist. Give up the car, making it plain to the carjacker that you are doing so. Then bail out on the unblocked side, if any, and run.
Kidnapper Your mantra: Don't go anywhere with him, says Officer Kathy Simpson, an 18-year LAPD veteran. "If you leave the original location, there's a good chance you'll end up dead. If they try to pull you into a car or van, don't go. This is when you should fight, yell and run. I would rather take my chances with someone shooting me in the back than getting taken. If the police are on the scene, remain still. Don't jerk your body around. Allow the officers to take the necessary action."
Mugger "Be aware of your surroundings," says Kroll's Boles. "Certain areas are safer than others, and you know which ones they are. Why go down a dark alley if you can take a well-lighted street?" If you are confronted, says Boles, give the mugger whatever he wants, then run away to a well-lighted area. "No mugger wants to be seen or even have attention attracted to him," says Boles. "If for some reason he's got you in a dark corner and he attacks you, it may be time to fight. But try talking to him first."
Blogger If someone with too much time on his hands calls you something awful on his website—say, a Dale Earnhardt Jr. groupie or a remorseless wasabi junkie—it's as libelous and as actionable as if someone called you that in this magazine. If the insult isn't that clear-cut, or you're not prepared to go nuclear, you might try a maneuver suggested by Ken Layne, editor of the news blog Sploid.com: Set up your own blog devoted to your many sterling qualities, and get all your friends to contribute. "That way, their compliments will drive the other guy's criticism way down your Google listings," Layne says.
The Southern California Survival Guide
39 ways to cope with L.A.'s daily dangers
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