- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Area police officers are urging residents to be cautious of criminals in the Christmas spirit as the hectic holiday shopping season gets under way.

“It seems that criminals need more money during the holiday times, or they need more gifts,” said Mary Mulrenan, a Fairfax County police spokeswoman. “They don’t have a legitimate means of raising their income during the season, so they do so by theft and other criminal activities.”

The shopping season has already started off with a bang. Late Monday night, 10 police officers in Elkton, Md., were called to restore order outside a Wal-Mart Supercenter after nearly 300 customers scuffled and trampled over one another for a chance to buy the new Xbox 360 video game system.

Officers also said a man was robbed Tuesday of an Xbox outside a Best Buy in Rockville, and on Monday, two men eluded Greenbelt police after they used counterfeit $20 bills at the Beltway Plaza Mall.

In an effort to combat such holiday-time capers, Fairfax County officers will be patrolling area shopping centers in special Christmas Anti-Theft Teams (CAT).

Last year, a CAT team from the county’s McLean District Station made 87 arrests and recovered more than $67,000 in stolen merchandise or money from the Tysons Corner Center area, officials said.

Police departments in Alexandria and Arlington and Prince George’s counties are also boosting patrols as part of an effort to combat crimes such as shoplifting, credit-card fraud and identity theft, which tend to increase during the holidays.

“It’s a target-rich environment [for thieves] this time of year,” said Detective Rick Rodriguez with the Arlington County Police Department. “You’ve got people shopping, people taking out cash and not paying attention to their surroundings.”

Officials in Loudoun and Montgomery counties said that although their departments are not drastically boosting patrols, officers will be increasing their visits to shopping malls and high-volume retail centers during the next month.

“Sergeants are telling their officers if they have a mall in their beat to increase patrols during the course of duty,” said Cpl. Sonia Pruitt, a Montgomery County police spokeswoman.

Police also are warning shoppers to be vigilant and take precautions against thieves as they trek to and from the stores. Consumers should avoid shopping alone, park in well-lit areas, carry keys, cash and credit cards separately and simply be aware of their surroundings, police said.

“Criminals know shoppers tend to have more money on their persons” during the holidays, Cpl. Pruitt said. “It’s a better opportunity than normal, and we tend to let our guard down a little bit — we’re in a great mood and may not be as vigilant as we usually are.”

Alexandria police spokeswoman Amy Bertsch also said more than a dozen packages sent via companies like UPS and FedEx have been stolen from the doorsteps of homes in the city. She urged residents to ensure that they will receive packages sent as presents over the holidays.

“They can ask that their package be left with a neighbor who is home [or] that the package be held at the delivery office,” Miss Bertsch said. “Or they may want to have the package delivered to their workplace.”

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