As you navigate the mall parking lots this summer, you may think that squeezing into an open space will be your biggest challenge. Think again. That’s because parking lots are where most mall-related crime occurs. Drivers and walkers navigating the lot are vulnerable to theft, and unattended vehicles loaded with packages are often open invitations for break-ins. Here’s advice from law-enforcement officials who patrol the country’s busiest malls on how to reduce your chances of becoming a victim.
Be choosy where you park
Sure, that isn’t always easy. But it could be worth driving around a little to find a spot in a populated area instead of settling on one in a dark, remote location, especially if you are alone. “Park in a well-lit area because criminals hate light; they don’t want to be identified,” said Officer Heidi Miller of the Police Department in Bloomington, Minn., home of the Mall of America.
Lock and stow
Many parking-lot thefts occur because drivers neglect to perform the simplest task: locking the car and closing the windows. Don’t allow your car to be an easy target for thieves. Hide valuables such as GPS devices, cell phones, laptops, and iPods. If your GPS is mounted to your windshield, pull it off and try to clean off the suction marks so that thieves don’t break into the car looking for it. “Don’t even leave the GPS cable,” Miller said, because criminals think you’re simply putting the device away in your glove box or center console. In addition, if you have an aftermarket stereo with a removable faceplate, Miller suggests removing the face and taking it with you.
“People walking through the parking lot don’t pay as much attention as they used to,” Capt. Robert Guidetti of the Paramus, N.J., Police Department said. Instead they are checking e-mail or making calls, or texting. Look to your front, side, and rear when walking to and from a store. Being aware of your surroundings lessens your chances of becoming a victim or getting struck by a car, Guidetti says.
Assume you’re watched
Criminals watch for shoppers who put purchases in their car or trunk, then walk back into the store. Once you’re gone, it can take only moments to break in and grab items. If you need to stow packages while shopping, repark your car in a different location, away from anyone who could have been observing, says Detective Bob Welsome of the New York City Police Department. Other options are to find out whether the mall has storage lockers available or ask security to hold your packages until you’re ready to leave.
“Walk like you have a purpose," said Officer Harry Nuskey of the Upper Merion Township, Pa., Police Department, near the popular Mall of Prussia. "Don't wander, even if you don't know where your car is." Have your car key in hand before you leave the store. It can also act as a weapon if necessary, Guidetti says. Once in your car, lock the doors immediately and drive off. Don’t sit and do other things. That will lessen the chance of you becoming a target.
Beware of stranger danger
If you are approached or chased, yell or scream to get attention or go back to the store and alert security. If you are followed while driving, go to an open gas station or a populated area with plenty of light, Miller says. “Your best defense is a well-charged cell phone," Miller said. "Get on the phone and call 911.”
- Park in high-traffic, well-lighted areas.
- Avoid parking near trucks, vans, dumpsters, and other objects that obstruct visibility and provide hiding places.
- Avoid parking near strangers loitering or sitting in vehicles.
- Immediately report suspicious persons, especially if they are nervous in appearance, pulling vehicle door handles, looking in windows or bumping into vehicles (checking for alarms).
- Immediately report suspicious activities or sounds, such as the sound of breaking glass, a car alarm, or a vehicle without lights at night that is cruising slowly, aimlessly, or repetitively.
- Always roll up your car windows and lock your doors.
- Remove and secure all valuables from your vehicle – even loose change can be tempting for thieves.
- Place valuables inside your trunk, secure them at your home, or take them with you. Never leave anything visible inside your vehicle. Thieves may be watching.
- Store shopping bags in the trunk right when you return to your vehicle, NOT after you park at the next place.
- Do not leave outgoing or incoming mail in your car, especially where visible. Mail may enable a criminal to use your personal information to access your accounts. The same risks crop up when a purse, wallet or briefcase is stolen.
- A suction cup mark on a windshield lets a thief know a GPS could be hidden under the seat. Wipe the tell-tale suction-cup residue off your dash or window. If possible, take the GPS with you.
- Keep a list of serial numbers as well as make and model information for your CD player, stereo faceplate, MP3 player, GPS, etc. Engrave your driver’s license number on your valuables to increase the chances of recovering them if lost or stolen.
- Use a detachable face for your stereo and carry it with you.
- Etch your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on windows, doors, fenders and trunk lid. Engrave expensive accessories such as T-tops, radios, etc. with your VIN number to make it difficult for anyone to pawn your stolen car parts or accessories.
- Copy your license plate and vehicle information (VIN) numbers on a card and keep them with you. If your vehicle is stolen, the police will need this information to take a report.
- Replace knob-type door lock buttons on your car doors with tapered ones.
- Install an alarm system that will sound when someone attempts to break in, move, tilt, or start your vehicle. Always activate the system when leaving the vehicle.
- If you don’t have a security system installed, it is worth the investment - it may also qualify you for a discount on your auto insurance.
- DO check your vehicle if you hear the alarm sound. DON’T try to stop a person attempting to break in. Get a good description and immediately call the police.
Before purchasing a vehicle, check whether law enforcement and insurance companies have listed the make and model on their top 10 theft list