Stanislaus County public safety officials share safety tips for holiday shopping and decorations

12/15/2013 7:46 PM

12/15/2013 9:07 PM

Dropping your guard or behaving a little carelessly could ruin your holiday season as the risk of theft and fire increases with the Christmas shopping frenzy and during the cold winter months.

Modesto public safety officials offered some advice to shoppers on how to avoid vehicle burglaries and to residents on how to prevent holiday hazards that could n destroy your home.

Thieves don’t like to work hard. They survey shopping center parking lots looking for the most vulnerable people, said Modesto police Lt. Brian Findlen.

Thieves look for purses, laptops, GPS devices, recently bought items, anything of value that’s visible in a quick peek through your car window, he said. Shoppers shouldn’t leave anything inside their parked vehicles, especially items that can be used by identity thieves.

“Don’t tempt them,” Findlen said about thieves. “Don’t make their crimes easy to commit.”

During the peak of the holiday shopping season, the Modesto Police Department has a group of undercover officers in unmarked vehicles driving through store parking lots and looking for those thieves who like to stalk the easiest prey.

Findlen was among that group of officers Saturday night. They moved up and down Sisk Road, which is lined with most of the larger shopping centers in the city, including Vintage Faire Mall.

They detain and question people who look suspicious. Most of them have trouble explaining why they are roaming the parking lots. Findlen said they stopped one man on a bike Saturday night along Plaza Parkway who said he was riding to Ceres.

The undercover officers work with uniformed officers to deter thefts and catch thieves red-handed. But Findlen said theft prevention starts with shoppers.

He urged shoppers to always park in well-lit areas and place purchased items in the trunk or drop them off at home before continuing to shop. Items in plain sight are what attract thieves. Findlen said even a purse left on the back seat floorboard is still visible.

Shoppers should always be aware of the surrounding area. Findlen said they should bring along only those items needed; there is no need for large purses full of credit cards.

It isn’t just shoppers who need to be careful over the holidays.

On its Facebook page, Modesto police last week warned residents not to leave their vehicles unattended while they’re warming up on cold winter mornings.

Police said vehicle thefts often increase during cold weather, and thieves can rip off your car in a matter of seconds.

“(Thieves) look for the easiest victim,” Findlen said. “They look for the crime of opportunity.”

Turlock police last week used Facebook to warn residents about three purse snatchings in two days. Residents were urged to keep their purses with them at all times. “If we eliminate the opportunity, we decrease the chances of becoming victims,” police officials said.

Along with thefts, fire hazards increase over the holidays as residents warm up their homes during the chilly season. Battalion Chief Hugo Patino of the Modesto Regional Fire Authority said it’s a good time to test smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.

In the past several years, firefighters have encountered people using barbecue grills indoors to warm up their homes. Patino said gas-powered generators, kerosene or propane should never be used indoors. Those who do risk carbon monoxide poisoning.

“They get cold,” Patino said about such careless behavior in the winter months. “They’re doing whatever they can to stay warm.”

Holiday decorations can also create fire hazards. Patino said people should always be careful with candles, place them away from items that can catch fire and extinguish them before going to sleep.

Christmas trees and holiday lights add to the long list of possible hazards, so people should handle them appropriately. Always keep the trees watered, Patino said, and never try to dispose of the tree by burning it in a fireplace. Pine needles burn really fast, creating a roaring blaze in seconds.

Patino said people should examine all their decorative lights and extension cords before using them. Frayed wiring can spark up a fire quickly.

“Some of the Christmas decorations are old, and people don’t want to get rid of them,” Patino said. “You’ve got to make sure they’re safe.”

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