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Shop local, shop safe

November 24, 2010 - By Megan Collier

Review staff writer

Black Friday is nearly upon us, but there's one message local officials are spreading before the retail frenzy: Shop local.

Both Suzanne Perreault, Downtown Development Authority (DDA) director, and, Jerry Narsh, Lake Orion police chief, though they advocate it for different reasons.

"The risk to personal safety and loss of property increases at this time of year when criminals know that almost everyone will venture out, with credit cards and cash, and packages in vehicles and homes," said Narsh. "One simple solution is to shop locally. The closer you are to home, the more knowledgeable you are of the stores and the circumstances around you."

This year, shopping downtown is also the DDA's holiday theme – a spinoff of a state wide campaign called Shop MI Downtown which encourages Michigan residents to spend 75 percent of their holiday shopping dollars in their own downtowns.

"We certainly want to have people support our local community," said Perreault. She said she's pleased to see more people thinking about shopping locally, especially during this holiday season and in the economic environment. "Our downtown merchants need that support"

Dec. 11 is officially Shop Lake Orion Downtown Day. Plans for strolling street entertainment, horse and carriage rides, and a reindeer are in the works.

Every Thursday in December will be Senior Shopping Day. Local seniors can check with the Orion Senior Center for details on gift wrapping and sales

Also, many downtown businesses are participating in a gift certificate program. Shoppers can purchase a certificate and check out a list of participating businesses at the DDA's office, at Shadbolt and N. Broadway.

Shoppers can also pick up "hint" notecards in downtown stores to write down three things they really want from the business, address them, and the store will mail the cards out.

But, how to keep all those downtown purchases safe? The Lake Orion police chief has tips.

"Let's start off with the attitude that 'I refuse to be a victim of crime,'" said Narsh, noting there are three zones of risk: shopping at stores and malls, shopping online and residential vulnerability.

When shopping at stores and malls, try to do so during daylight hours.

"If you must shop at night, go with a friend or family member," said the chief.

Dress casually and comfortably, avoid wearing expensive jewelry, don't carry a purse or wallet, if possible, avoid carrying large amounts of cash and stay alert.

Narsh recommends paying for purchases with a check or credit card when possible and keep them in the front pocket.

Also, avoid overloading yourself with packages – it is important to have clear visibility and freedom of motion to avoid mishaps. And, beware of strangers approaching you for any reason.

"At this time of year, con artists may try various methods of distracting you with the intention of taking your money or belongings," Narsh said, noting it's always a good idea to shop in pairs as thieves are less likely to target two or more individuals. 

After making purchases, lock your gifts in the trunk – an electronics store bag filled with goodies sitting on the back seat in plain view is tempting for a smash-and-grab burglar.

If shopping at an outdoor mall or outlet stores, consider moving your car when you drop off purchases.  "No one likes to lug around too many items from store to store, so most people return to their cars several times to drop off purchases and resume shopping," Narsh said, adding, when you do this, consider moving your car a few lanes away as thieves often stake out parking lots for people leaving purchases in their car and returning to stores. "If they see you get in and drive away they will likely assume your shopping trip is over and look for another target. If you know you will be shopping for a long time, anticipate coming out into a dark parking lot and look for light poles to park under. And, if you approach your car and see an unsavory character staked out nearby, return to the store and ask for someone to walk you to your car.  Most store security personnel are used to this, so there is no need to feel embarrassed.  Besides, better to be safe than sorry."

Also, have the car keys at the ready when walking out to the car.

As for shopping online, there's a whole new list of safety precautions.

"Holiday shopping online just makes sense. It saves lots of time, avoids the crowds, offers amazing selection, reasonable prices and you can even track your packages. But shopping online is not without risks. Online identity theft is often in the news. Many people wonder what websites are safe. They also worry about giving out their credit card number so often. The good news is that there are ways to drastically reduce your risk when shopping online," said Narsh.

Be sure your computer, your browser and your wi-fi connection are secure and up-to-date

Never use public or unfamiliar computers when shopping or banking online. You have no way to tell whether those computers are infected with malware. If they are, you have no defense.

Don't use debit cards when shopping online. Existing laws limit your losses when using a credit card but debit cards do not have the same protection.

Another way to limit credit card risk is to use a third-party service to pay for purchases. While PayPal is the top company in this field, others include Google Checkout, Wirecard and Moneybookers.

"The point of using a third-party service is they don't use your credit card number to make payments. That means your credit card number is on a lot fewer places on the internet, and your risk is a lot lower," Narsh said.

Using prepaid and "disposable" credit cards accomplishes the same thing, just be sure to read the fine print on them, he added.

When ready to pay at a web site, make sure your connection is secure.

"You should see a padlock in the bottom right corner of your screen or in the URL bar. The web address should also start with "https." If you don't see these indicators, your connection isn't secure. Also, never save passwords in your browser. That's the first place bad guys will look if they can infect your computer. Be sure to log out of each site as you shop."

Now that the shopping experience and purchases are safe, it's time to keep them safe.

"Large appliance boxes and containers are a sign Santa was really good to someone in the neighborhood," said Narsh. They are also a sign to thieves that the house just got a new plasma television for Christmas."  He recommends breaking down boxes and put them in cans or black garbage bags to conceal the products that were inside them.

When going out of town, contact the Lake Orion Police Department and ask to have your home placed on "vacation watch." Patrol officers will ride by your home for a safety check once during their shift.  Call 248-693-8321 to set it up.

While you're gone, consider picking up some inexpensive timers for lights and radios, and have them come on at times when you are normally home. 

"I even suggest staggering the timers so that living room lights come on and off early in the evening and bedroom lights come on later.  This is consistent with most schedules, but adapts to fit your family's routine," said the chief.

Pay someone to shovel snow, get the newspaper and mail, or consider suspending their delivery.

Do not broadcast traveling plans.

"You may be proud that you are taking your family on a week-long cruise over the holidays, but don't brag too much. You never know who might be taking note. Do not post your travel plans on your social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter," said Narsh.

Residents should leave a spare key and emergency telephone number with a trusted neighbor or friend.  In an emergency, like a broken water heater, it may be necessary for someone to enter your home.

Silence the ringer on your home telephone. One trick of the criminal trade is to stake out a house and call the phone number.  If the phone rings and rings with no answer it is a safe bet no one is home. If the phone doesn't ring at all, crooks may suspect they are dialing the wrong number, or someone is home and using the phone.  Do not mention your travel plans on voicemail or answering machines.

Narsh says it's a good idea to leave a second car parked in the driveway, but be sure to remove the garage door opener.  Burglars can easily bust out a window and open your garage with the click of a button.

If you live in a home with an attached garage, lock the door from the garage to the home when leaving for Christmas vacation. Garage doors have been known to malfunction, or be manually forced up, allowing access to your home.

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