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James Hart | Thieves are looking to steal your holiday joy

Starting Friday, thousands of people will head to local malls and shopping centers, eager to find a steal of a deal for the holidays.

Unfortunately, so will a lot of thieves.

Nothing puts a chill on the holiday spirit faster than having your wallet stolen or finding your car windows smashed, with all of your newly purchased gifts gone. Bigger crowds at the stores, unfortunately, mean more targets for the enterprising criminals among us.

In December, for example, Overland Park police usually see a spike of 60 percent in calls for service at one of their busiest shopping centers, crime-prevention officer Bill Koehn said.

“It’s a target-rich environment,” he said.

The average person isn’t always as vigilant as he or she could be.

“We’re Midwesterners,” Koehn said. “We trust people.”

Koehn passed along the following tips to make life harder for the bad guys:

Avoid carrying a lot of cash. If someone steals your credit card, you’re only on the hook for a maximum of $50 in losses per card if you report the loss to your credit-card company, the Federal Trade Commission says. If someone steals your cash, though, it’s unlikely you’re going to recover that loss.

Several stores and shopping centers employ extra security guards during the holiday season. Don’t be afraid to ask for an escort to your car, especially if it’s after dark.

Don’t leave valuables lying in your car in plain sight, and for Pete’s sake, lock the doors. Put bags and other purchases in your trunk, if possible. “Do not make your car the target,” Koehn said.

Shop with a friend. It’s another way to make yourself less of a target.

Be aware of your surroundings, and speak up if you notice anything unusual. If you see someone sitting in a car in the parking lot for an extended period of time, tell security.

And when you get home, think about how you decorate.

Your Christmas tree probably looks beautiful when placed in full view of your front window. But it might not be a good idea to put a ton of wrapped gifts out in the open, where anybody looking inside can see them, Koehn said.

Of course, some folks will avoid the crowded stores and do their holiday shopping exclusively online.

There are still things they can do to protect themselves, such as using reputable websites and avoiding phishing scams.

The FTC operates a website,

onguardonline.gov

, that offers useful information for shoppers who don’t plan to head for the mall at 5 a.m. on Friday.

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