As area malls and plazas are abuzz with holiday spirit and crazed shoppers look for the year's best bargain, criminals will be out looking for a steal of a different kind.
Today marks the busiest shopping day of the year, and police warn buyers to be cognizant of pocketbooks and packages.
The holiday season is a time of feast to armed robbers, purse snatchers and thieves who prey on unsuspecting shoppers with bulging wallets and arms full with packages.
"There are definitely more victims/targets in the street," said Chief Deputy Ronald Strength of the Richmond County Sheriff's Department. "The bad guys know you are carrying more money and items of value. There are more robberies in November and December because there is more opportunity."
In 1997, Richmond County averaged about 28 armed robberies a month between February and September, but that increased in the holiday period to about 35 per month. Robberies without weapons also saw an increase in the holiday season, from about 29 per month to 36 per month.
"Trends in crime show the numbers (of robberies) rise locally because there's more shopping and the criminal element is aware of that," said Lt. Tim Pearson with the North Augusta Department of Public Safety. "They are wanting to prey on the easy target."
Lt. Pearson said people need to use common sense when out shopping -- be aware of your surroundings, pre-plan routes to shopping malls and stores and lock your car doors.
"The most important step toward ensuring public safety is making the decision to refuse to become a victim, stay alert and make it difficult to be preyed upon," said Columbia County sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris.
Residents should consider investing in a cellular phone to be able to easily call for help. And if approached by someone demanding money or belongings, always be as cooperative as possible, Capt. Morris said.
"Too many people take for granted that it won't happen to me," Chief Deputy Strength said. "You always need to be cognizant that you can become a victim -- in any area."
The chief deputy recommendsgoing in groups whenever possible when shopping parking in well-lit areas and as close to the store's door as is possible.
"When you're walking to and from your car, look around, be aware of people around you and report anything that is suspicious, it could help someone else," he said.
Police also recommend not using automated transaction machines, or money machines, after dark. But if you must, ride around the parking lot and look for anyone suspicious first, Chief Deputy Strength said, and go with someone.
"Numbers are always a deterrent," he said.
Although Richmond County has seen a decrease in crime this year, Chief Deputy Strength said police are ready for a rise in crime during the holidays.
"We don't want to let our guard down," he said. A high visibility of officers in high-traffic places like malls and strip plazas will help deter crime, he said. But if you do become a victim, don't be a hero, Capt. Morris said.
"Concentrate on being a good witness," he said. "Get physical descriptions and car descriptions. It's important that we get those details."
Source: Augusta Mall