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Shopping safely

The Baltimore Sun

Tonight, after eating turkey and playing board games, Sarah Maxwell plans to kiss her daughters and husband goodbye, drink a Red Bull and go shopping.

For the past two years, the Elkridge stay-at-home mother has teamed up with a girlfriend to hit the sales that many stores offer before the sun has risen on Black Friday. But this year, she's taking extra precautions to be sure she will be safe when she goes to Arundel Mills for its midnight opening.

"We're definitely going with a group - eight people. We're going to try to park close by, look around the parking lot, go to the bathrooms with other people," said Maxwell, 25. "I like the crowds and the excitement, but you really have to keep your eyes open with the way things are right now."

Along with carols and candy canes, the holidays bring another tradition to shopping centers - increased crime. While retailers hope for strong holiday sales to combat sluggish earnings, police and retailers are bracing for an uptick of pickpockets, purse snatchers and shopping bag grabbers.

Holiday shoppers make easy targets for criminals, said Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey. "When people are out during the holiday season, they are often very distracted. You're juggling your bags and, bam, someone comes up and grabs your stuff and you don't even know which way he ran."

While the holidays are usually considered the time when crimes are most likely to occur at shopping centers, some recent incidents have put shoppers on edge before the season begins. Thefts have risen sharply over last year at Arundel Mills and The Mall in Columbia. And at Arundel Mills, there has been a spate of armed robberies in the parking lot in recent weeks - in one, a man held up a woman in front of her 8-year-old daughter.

Officials at Arundel Mills and The Mall in Columbia declined to give details on their security.

"We cannot discuss the specifics of public safety plans because doing so would compromise the safety of our shoppers," said Jessica Bloom, a spokeswoman for The Mall in Columbia.

Thefts have increased more than 25 percent over last year at The Mall in Columbia and thefts from autos have more than doubled, Howard County police said.

For the holiday season, police say they are pulling officers from traffic details and community outreach to increase patrols at shopping centers. For instance, police in Bel Air are seeking help from their auxiliary members to patrol the parking lot at Harford Mall.

Anne Arundel County's police chief, Col. James Teare Sr., said his force intends to be a strong presence at shopping areas: "We want to be highly visible as a police department."

And shoppers say they are taking extra steps to keep themselves safe.

"If we have a lot of packages, we kind of book it to the car and hop in," said Valerie Lambert of Hanover. As Lambert and her husband ate dinner at a Panera near Arundel Mills this week, they said they had felt as if robbers were circling them in mall parking lots in the region.

Watching her 5-year-old son eat chicken nuggets at a McDonald's near Arundel Mills, Beverly Williams of Hanover said she avoids going to the mall at night. And she tells her teenage daughter, who works in a store at the mall, not to go into the parking lot alone.

"I tell her to stay inside the door and wait until either I or my husband pull up," Williams said. "I know she's safe inside. It's the parking lot I worry about."

While millions safely shop at the region's malls each year, they have also been the scene of some well-publicized crimes. In February 2005, a popular private school teacher was fatally shot in the parking lot of Towson Town Center. In November 2006, a 16-year-old high school student and a Secret Service agent were wounded in a shooting at Westfield Annapolis mall. And in January, a teenager was stabbed at The Mall in Columbia.

No one has been injured in attacks at Arundel Mills, but five people have been robbed at gunpoint in parking lots at the mall and nearby stores in the past two months.

While the number of cars stolen from the mall lot has been cut in half since last year, thefts have jumped nearly 20 percent, from 665 for all of last year to 790 so far this year. The number of assaults in the area around the mall appears to be rising. While an average of three or four occurred each month during the spring and summer, seven have been reported for November, including four last weekend.

A county police officer is stationed at the mall while it's open, Anne Arundel police spokesman Sgt. John Gilmer said. During the holidays, officers will be moved from other details to patrol county shopping centers in police cruisers and undercover, he said.

Security guards ride through the mall and parking lot in cars, bikes and on Segways, mall spokeswoman Wendy Ellis said. They monitor video cameras, maintain frequent communication with police and escort shoppers to their cars upon request.

The police presence at the mall will increase when the county opens a substation there next year, said Teare, the police chief.

For now, shoppers say they're paying attention to their surroundings this holiday season.

"Today, I took the time to find a closer parking place with better lighting," said Janelle Austin of Linthicum as she ate at McDonald's after a visit to the mall. "There are some darker parts of the parking lot I avoid. But you can't just hide. Sometimes you have to go shopping."

Baltimore Sun reporters Tyeesha Dixon and Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

safety tips for shoppers:

* Park your vehicle close to streetlights and walk in well-lighted areas.

* Don't fumble for your car keys. Keep your keys in your hand when walking to your car.

* Take advantage of mall escort services to your car.

* Store all merchandise in your car out of view, preferably in a secure place, such as the trunk.

* Don't use your cell phone while walking in parking lots and streets. It is a distraction that makes you vulnerable to robbers, and your cell phone itself is a tempting target.

* Be aware of your surroundings, and report any suspicious activity.

Sources: Anne Arundel County Police Department, Baltimore County Police Department

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