Roll Call: Avoid new scams, violent crime while holiday shopping

Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel will retire in May after serving the community for 38 years, the last 13 as chief.

While some of this may seem like old hat, some new scams are going around this year and obviously there has been a surge in violent crime, especially in shopping mall parking lots, malls themselves and other entertainment areas. While police certainly are on heightened alert and patrol, the following advice can help you stay safe while you do your holiday shopping.

Criminals do not take holidays off. Instead, they often find more opportunities to victimize people, especially those distracted or alone. Please follow my advice or tips for shopping this year.

First, keep your head on a swivel and be aware of your surroundings. Make sure you are not being followed, and if you believe you are, alert security or go into a store and call 911 for assistance.

The following safety tips are good for shopping throughout the year, but especially during the holiday season:

• Shop during the day when possible and bring along a companion.

• Park in well-lit areas, always lock your doors and keep your valuables out of sight.

• Do not overload your arms with packages.

• You should know how to carry your purse and wallet. Please do not make it easy for someone to snatch it.

• Have your keys ready when you approach your car after shopping.

• If you must drop off some of your purchases and continue shopping, consider moving the vehicle to another spot so the criminals lurking earlier will not know where your car is parked.

Pay attention to parking lot areas. Criminals are on the lookout for people whom they can victimize. They are looking for shoppers who try to hide items in their cars or those who leave them out in the open. You would be surprised how many people leave electronics and holiday gifts in full view of others who walk by their car. Do not make this mistake.

One new crime to be aware of in our communities in 2023 that requires a greater need for heightened vigilance is the brazen act of criminals attempting to rob your cellphone. They ask you for your phone or physically take the phone from you. Using your phone, they Zelle or Venmo money from your bank account to theirs, sending the cash directly to their phone via the app. This is happening quite frequently in the Chicago area.

Do you carry your phone in public where people can see it? Phones are among the most stolen items in 2023 and many are stolen violently during robberies.

On a positive note, you can feel safe this year because police and security personnel have increased their presence in shopping mall areas, parking lots and entertainment venues. Many retailers have hired private security services in addition to relying on local police. Many municipalities have installed Flock Safety cameras that track the movements of vehicles that enter shopping areas. This is important because the data can immediately register a stolen car or provide police with follow-up tips to help solve crimes. When police can solve criminal activity in our neighborhoods using the data from these cameras, it serves as a strong message of deterrence, keeping individuals from further victimizing our communities throughout the holiday season.

Finally, if you are ever in doubt, most malls will provide you with an escort to your car. You can ask security at the mall if it would walk with you or have a squad car follow you to your vehicle. And if you ever believe you are being followed or have been the victim of a crime, dial 911 immediately. Remember, do not resist. It is certainly not worth your life.

• Tom Weitzel was chief of the Riverside Police Department. Follow him @chiefweitzel.