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Police advise shoppers to watch for thieves

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As shoppers search for deals at local stores this holiday season, thieves will be shopping the parking lots.

Charleston police are offering some holiday shopping tips. Not where to find the best deals, but how they can protect their property.

It's as easy as just knowing what's going on around you, said Lt. Steve Cooper, Charleston assistant chief of detectives. Shoppers should trust their gut instincts and avoid those they feel are suspicious.

Another tip: Never leave anything in the back seat of a vehicle or park in the dark.

He said thieves look forward to big shopping days.

"When you're shopping, so are the criminals," Cooper said. "They're shopping for what's in your back seat. They're like the Grinch."

Thieves will check doors to see if they are locked, so make sure they are. Thieves typically don't want the attention that comes with breaking a window to get into a vehicle.

Cooper has interviewed a lot of suspects in his career and said thieves are often surprised at how few people lock their doors.

Brad Rinehart, South Charleston police chief, said the season brings "crimes of opportunity."

"The biggest thing is that people have to pay attention," Rinehart said. "They get up there, they get in the stores and they get tunnel vision.

"They need to be aware of their surroundings."

Electronics are a big grab, Apple products especially, but cellphones in particular have been a hot target item for years.

About 40 percent of robberies target cellphones, he said.  

Charleston officers have taken reports of at least 250 cellphone thefts this year. That's only a little more than last year's total, which was 212.

"Cellphone theft has become the most common form of theft in the whole country," Cooper said. "These thieves are looking for people who just aren't paying close attention."

He said it's happened before to people eating lunch. A cellphone is placed on the table while the person eats or reads the paper and then a thief walks by and pockets the device. Just like that, it's gone.

Rinehart said purses left unattended in shopping carts have "walked off" in the past and that officers have been working to curtail that problem.

Wandering away from a purse in a shopping cart is like an open invitation, he said.  

Shoplifting is another crime that tends to spike around the holidays. Merchants, Cooper said, are aware of that trend and in the past have taken extra precautions.

Rinehart said several stores in South Charleston have hired off-duty police officers to keep an eye on things. The number of on-duty police officers patrolling shopping areas will be increased.

Rinehart said about 15 officers will be in the areas of the Shops at Trace Fork and Southridge Centre over the weekend. They'll also help direct traffic.

Charleston officers, some in "plain clothes," also will work the area, as well as Charleston Town Center.

Most of the theft is driven by drugs, he said.

"We don't see too many incidents of someone stealing at this time of year to provide for their family," Cooper said. "It's to provide for themselves for their illicit drug activity. They're basically being lazy predators."

Another thing to watch out for: parking lot scam artists. They all have a story to tell, and they all want your money.

Cooper said they claim a crisis and approach shoppers seeking quick cash. A common tale is that the person has a family emergency — maybe a parent or relative is ill and in a hospital — and they need to get to them but have no gas money.

He said it's just not normal to approach a stranger for money and that people should be cautious, especially near ATMs.

Officers also had tips for those shopping online.

Identity theft is on the rise worldwide. Some things residents can do to protect themselves and their bank accounts is to protect their Social Security information and shred, if possible, bills and other mail items that may contain financial information. Only trusted websites should be patronized.

Cooper said it's a good idea to check your credit score once a year to make sure there's been no fraudulent activity.

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at or 304-348-4850.


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