Organized Crime Rings Want to Steal Your Holiday Gifts. Tips for Safe Shopping.

Shopers at Tysons Corner Center mall.

At 2.4 million square feet, Tysons Corner Center is one of the 10 largest malls in the U.S., and along with the Tysons Galleria, these two malls attract shoppers from across the country and the world.

However, its’ also a destination for organized, retail crime rings during the holiday season. The Fairfax County Police have caught domestic and international thieves working at these two malls.

Tysons Corner Center mall.

This time of year, the department’s nine-member Tysons Urban Team focuses almost exclusively on keeping shoppers safe. “The Tysons area attracts people from New York and Florida routinely to commit crimes,” said 2nd Lt. Chuck Riddle, the team’s leader. “We’ve caught people who have flown in. It is a significant business, and it really doesn’t attract a lot of media attention “

Over the past six years, the team has arrested more than 100 people from these two states, plus more than 24 people from Michigan working in teams of two or three and dozens from California. It also has busted criminal rings coming from Russia, Romania and China.

Wherever you’re shopping this holiday, follow these five tips:

#1 Watch your wallet or purse

Thanks to microchip technology that’s incorporated into most credit cards these days, it’s more difficult for thieves to use stolen credit cards numbers to make fraudulent purchases.

“So, thieves are now going old school,” said Riddle. “That means they want your actual credit card.”

It’s common for thieves to sit behind you to rifle through your purse hanging on your chair. “They back their chair up to a woman who has set her purse over the arm of the chair, and they can just surreptitiously reach back, pull out her wallet,” he said.

If you’ve got multiple cards in your wallet, the more discerning robbers will zero in on cards that you likely don’t use frequently and therefore may not monitor as closely.

“A lot of times, the more savvy ones won’t even take the top credit cards,” he said. “If you have multiple cards, you probably have an emergency card that’s further down in stack. They’ll take one or two of those.”

Thieves will then use these cards at nearby stores until they hit your credit limit, or your credit card company’s fraud-detection algorithms stop the suspect purchases.

Pickpocketing a purse.

#2 Set up automatic credit card spending alerts

This way you’ll be alerted immediately when your card is used, and you’ll know if it’s been stolen or compromised.

“A lot of people don’t have their phone or their credit card account set up to give them instant notifications,” said Riddle. “With most credit cards companies, you can now get notified the instant your card is charged. That’s something that everyone should set up—and you should pay attention to it when an alert comes in.”

#3 Watch your bags and be aware of your surroundings

When shopping, put your bags between your legs and pay attention to what is going on around you.

“We see a lot of package theft or bag theft this time of year,” Riddle warns. “There are people that are searching for crimes of opportunity daily in shopping malls.”

“You’ve set your bags down,” said Riddle. “You may even think you’re keeping your eye on them, but they’re maneuvering around you, and they’ll pick up one of your bags and go.”

Shopper with bag between his legs.

To help stay aware of what going on around you, have a plan in mind when you go shopping so you know where you’re going and what you intend to buy.

“It’s very easy to fall into a trap of looking at your phone constantly, and checking things off your list,” Riddle said.

Make your biggest ticket purchase the stop before you head home. “If you get several items or something that is particularly valuable, say you’re buying someone a new Surface Pro or iPad or a laptop or something like that, I would recommend that be your last stop in the store,” Riddle said.

#4 Lock your car doors and keep valuables in the trunk

“A lot of times, we have what we call car hoppers, people that are going from car to car looking for unlocked doors,” Riddle said.

He advises not having anything valuable visible inside your car.

“I like to tell people that if anyone looks in your car it should look like it just came off the showroom floor. Car mats and that’s it, not even a charging cord.”

# 5 Pick a well-lit parking spot

Look for a well-lit spot and avoid dark, remote areas of the parking lot.

“It may behoove you if you’re doing a lot of shopping to continue circling until you find a spot in another location.”

Pay attention to your surroundings and look out for people behaving suspiciously.

“You want to be alert anytime you’re out in the parking lots, whether you’re going in or coming out—but especially when you’re coming out,” said Riddle. “When you’re carrying packages, keep your head up. Watch what you’re doing.”

Well lit parking space.

What’s Riddle’s final tip for holiday shoppers?

“It’s the festive time of year. Everyone should go out and enjoy the holidays. But please keep your eyes and ears open and help us catch the people that are on Santa’s naughty list.”

You can hear more from Riddle by listening to his interview on the County Conversation podcast.

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