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The holiday season should be a time of joy, family celebrations and thanksgiving. That holiday dream, however, can turn into a nightmare when unsuspecting residents become victims of holiday crime. Area law enforcement agencies encourage holiday shoppers and travelers to use common sense this holiday season as they venture into the community to partake in all the joys, and stresses, of the holidays.
1. Hide presents and other valuables from prying eyes
Most breaking and entering incidents and larcenies occur when potential criminals can see valuables stored in a vehicle or home, said Claremont Police Capt. Gary Bost.
Hiding presents, packages and shopping bags from sight prevents criminals from breaking a car window or a front door to nab Christmas gifts.
"(Criminals) usually don't break in unless they see something," Bost said. "If you don't tempt them, they probably won't break in."
Shoppers should stow holiday gifts in their vehicle's trunk. When those presents arrive at home, they should be stored in a closet or other hidden location, so thieves can't spot the gifts in piles under the Christmas tree.
2. Fireproof your decorations
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Christmas trees are involved in hundreds of fires annually, resulting in about 15 deaths and $13 million in property damage. The National Fire Protection Association said heating equipment fires are the second leading cause of fire deaths in American homes. During the winter, they are the No. 1 cause of fire-related deaths.
"The good news is that most of these fires are preventable," said Terri Byers, Hickory Fire Department fire education coordinator. "It's simply a matter of being aware that these hazards exist and taking the few steps necessary to avoid them."
Byers recommended residents inspect their home heating systems and have their chimneys cleaned before the start of each heating season.
December, January and February are the leading months for home fires and home fire deaths in the United States.
According to the NFPA, the leading causes of home fires are inadequate chimney cleaning; items placed too close to heating sources; errors in liquid- or gas-fueled heaters; and flaws in the design, installation or use of heating equipment.
3. Keep homes safe even when on vacation
Criminals often target homes that appear empty, Bost said. So, it's good to give homes the appearance of occupancy, even when residents are away.
"It's good to have lights on timers," Bost said, adding if criminals drive by a home and see lights turn on and off, they are less likely to break in.
Home alarm systems are another way to protect a house. Not everyone can afford a system, however. Several area law enforcement agencies offer home checks while residents are away on vacation or spending time with family members. Officers drive by the home to ensure nothing looks amiss. Residents can personalize the home checks depending on how long they will be gone and how often they want their home visited by police.
4. Be aware of surroundings
In the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping, it's easy to get distracted and ignore common warning signs of potential dangers.
Law enforcement officials encourage everyone shopping at malls, supermarkets or other stores to be aware of their surroundings at all times.
"Try to go shopping during daylight hours," said Catawba County Chief Deputy Coy Reid. "That can be difficult during the holidays, but it's safer. Always look around when you go to the parking lot, and if you see something suspicious, don't be afraid to go back inside the store and ask for help."
Reid said many department stores or shopping malls have on-duty guards or security officials who will escort shoppers to their cars, if necessary.
If residents find themselves in a dangerous situation, they should do whatever possible to alert others to the danger.
"If you're in a bad situation, scream or make as much noise as possible so people will know something is wrong," Bost said.
Reid recommended shoppers have their keys ready as they're walking to the car, because keys can act as a weapon against an attacker.
"Mace could be useful during a bad situation, but most people carry mace in their wallets or purses," Reid said. "You can't call a time out during an attack to stop and get your mace."
5. Don't go alone
Law enforcement officials advised there is strength in numbers when shopping during the holidays.
"A single shopper is an easy target," Reid said.
If shopping with someone else isn't possible, Reid advised telling a friend or family member where you're going and when you expect to be back.
"That way if something does happen to you, someone can give (police) some information about you," he said.
Additional details, such as what the shopper was wearing and where they expected to go, can also provide police with important details during a missing-person search.
For more information about holiday safety, contact your local fire department or law enforcement agency.