During the Holidays, Thieves Find It Easy to Receive What You're Giving

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Law enforcement officials are urging people to take precautions during the holiday season to avoid vehicle burglaries, telephone solicitation scams and bank machine and credit card fraud--crimes that typically increase as Christmas approaches.

Some important tips:

* Don't leave gifts or other valuables in your car while shopping.

* Cover up the key pad on the ATM machine or telephone when dialing your personal identification number or access code.

* Be wary when someone tries to sell you something over the phone.

"You know that line: If it sounds too good, it is," said Costa Mesa Police Capt. Tom Lazar. "You should question the people who you are talking to about the validity of the offer. Ask for a phone number where you can call back to verify the information."

Sheriff's Lt. Ron Wilkerson said when charities call asking for money, find out whether callers are professional for-profit solicitors who receive a percentage of each donation.

Always get a name, address and phone number of the specific charity and ask the caller to send you more information about the charity's programs and expenses, he said. If they won't, that should serve as a warning that something is not right.

People should also ask for the charity's nonprofit identification number in order to check the agency further before donating. And be particularly wary of organizations that want to send someone to your home or business within hours or days to pick up a check.

"The busy season for solicitors is the holiday season," Wilkerson said. "People seem to have more goodwill at this time of the year. Therefore, they are more apt to be victimized. It's just a matter of using a little precaution."

Phone solicitors often ask for personal information such as birth dates, bank account and credit card numbers. Don't give those out, authorities say.

"The information that they ask for is information that they could then turn around and use, identifying themselves as you," Lazar said.

Legitimate charities often contact the law enforcement agency in an area they plan to solicit, in case someone checks with authorities, Anaheim Sgt. Tom Mathisen said.

"If anyone's in doubt, by all means, check with your local law enforcement agency to make sure it's a legitimate charitable organization," Mathisen said.

ATM fraud also climbs this time of year.

"They can watch you putting your PIN number in, or capture it on video," said Wilkerson, who suggests covering up the keypad while entering the secret code. "There's a way to use that number in combination with other information without actually physically having the card."

Less high-tech crimes also proliferate during the gift-giving season, including pickpocketing, purse snatching and vehicle burglaries in shopping malls, police said. Always report suspicious activity to police or mall security, they said.

"Keep your wallet safe and secure," Huntington Beach Lt. Dan Johnson said. "Don't leave with the presents in the car. Take them home and drop them off."

Johnson said people are often tempted to arrange their wrapped gifts artfully around their beautiful Christmas trees, then open the curtains for the world to see. Don't do that. The warmth and glitter is equally inviting to burglars, he said.

On a more positive note, the holiday shopping crush can backfire on burglars, police say.

"Sometimes those parking lots get so crowded that even the crooks can't get in there," Lazar said. "They have to have an avenue of escape."

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