"The holiday season is here. Don't let the spirit of giving lull you into giving burglars, muggers and pickpockets a better chance to do their dirty work. Crooks love the holidays as much as everyone else, but chiefly because it's an opportune time for crime," advised Dave Shallcross, the Community Liaison of the PA Office of Attorney General, Public Protection Division. He was a guest speaker at the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Monroe County's Annual Holiday Program and offered several holiday safety and shopping tips.
Homes are packed with glittering gifts, stores, malls and downtown streets are teeming with unsuspecting shoppers. People rush around, are stressed out and careless, looking for last-minute gifts, trying to get everything done.
"It's enough to make a crook giddy with holiday joy," Shallcross said.
Here are some of his tips:
*Get an automatic timer for your lights
*Ask a neighbor to watch your home, shovel snow and park in your driveway
*Don't forget to have mail and newspaper delivery stopped. If it piles up, it's a sure sign you're gone
***Out for the evening
*Turn on lights and a radio or TV so it looks like someone is home
*Be extra cautious about locking doors and windows when you leave, even if it's just for a few minutes
*Don't leave curtains opened and place gifts out of view
*Leave on exterior lights so you can see upon returning home
*Try to go shopping in the daylight hours
*Stay alert and be aware of what's going on around you
*Park in a well-lighted space, close to the store entrance and be sure to lock your car, close the windows, and hide cell phones, GPS devices, shopping bags and gifts out of sight
*Avoid carrying large amounts of cash. Pay with a check or credit card whenever possible
*Deter pickpockets and purse-snatchers. Don't overburden yourself with packages. Be extra careful with purses and wallets. Carry a purse close to your body, closed, and across your body while under your coat. Place your wallet in an inside coat or front pants pocket.
*Shopping with kids? Teach them to go to a store clerk or security guard if you get separated.
*If shopping online, use only trusted websites and verify URL and if at the address, look for https-if the s isn't on the end, don't put in any personal info until you see it, it will appear as soon as you have to enter your personal info and use only a secure site to order merchandise from.
***If a stranger comes to the door, be aware
*Criminals sometimes pose as couriers delivering gifts. And it's not uncommon for people to try to take advantage of others' generosity during the holidays by going door-to-door for charitable donations when there's no charity involved. Don't open your door to a stranger, slightly open a window and ask for identification, find out how the funds will be used, tell them to leave written information for your consideration. You can always help a local charity you know of instead.
***Mail order purchases
*Keep a copy of your order and the ad
*Watch for upfront fees on general bank cards
*Use it as soon as possible to avoid fees or expiration
*Keep a copy of the card, receipt and any backer
Always sign your card. It's part of the cardholder agreement. If there's fraud, it gives the Consumer Protection something to compare it to.
*Do not carry more than one major credit card at a time
*Protect the card's pin number, CVV@ and passwords at all times
*Monitor statements and annual credit report
*Watch for card swap scams at the registers. Follow your waiter/waitress to the register.
*Watch for shoulder surfers, someone peeking from behind when entering numbers
*Dispute purchases within 30 days
*Keep copies of fronts and backs of credit cards at home
***Free trials and special offers
*Read fine print
*Watch for negative options
*Buy one get two free-at what cost
*Look for return/restocking fees
*Be sure your information is not passed on
***Take a holiday inventory. The holidays are a good time to update or create your home inventory. Take photos or make videos of items and list descriptions and serial numbers. If your home is burglarized, having a detailed inventory can help identify stolen items and make insurance claims easier to file. Make sure things like TVs, DVD players, music players, cameras, sports equipment, jewelry, silver, computers, home furnishings, collectibles and power tools are on the list. Remember to check it twice.
Shallcross said, "Don't let holiday stress get the best of your holiday spirit. Make time to get together with family, friends and neighbors. And think about reaching out in the spirit of the season and helping someone less fortunate or lonely.
Do your part to make the holidays a safe and happy time for everybody, except the criminals.
***Some phone numbers to keep on hand are:
*Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection toll free hot line 1-800-441-2555 or www.attorneygeneral.gov.
*Obtain a free copy of your credit report once a year by calling 1-877-322-8228 or www.annualcreditreport.com or mail request to Annual Credit Report Request Service, PO Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.
*Information on help with cutting home heating costs-1-800-441-2555
*To register for the Do Not Call list for unwanted telemarketing calls-1-888-777-3406 or www.attorneygeneral.gov. Must reregister every five years.
*To remove your address from mail solicitation lists for five years, send a signed letter with your complete name, mailing address and telephone number with a check or money order made out to DMA in the amount of $1 for each name. Send to DMA Choice, Direct Marketing Association, PO Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512 or free at www.dmachoice.org.
*To remove your name from mailing lists for pre-approved offers of credit for five years, call 1-888-567-8688, or www.optoutprescreen.com.
You can also mail any concerns or questions to: Office of Attorney General, Bureau of Consumer Protection; 15th Floor Strawberry Square, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 17120 or www.attorneygeneral.gov.