The threat of physical assault does not necessarily increase along with the crowds that herald the holiday season. It's when you're far from the crowd, in distant reaches of parking lots or other isolated areas of the mall that you are most vulnerable. To protect yourself:
Always try to walk to and from your vehicle with another person. If you are shopping alone, consider walking near other shoppers in the parking lot.
If shopping alone and leaving at night -- particularly if you're carrying several bundles -- ask a security officer to accompany you to your car. Most malls will provide that service.
Inside a mall, avoid darkened hallways and other backroom areas, especially near closing time.
Avoid using bathrooms that are tucked away in a back area of a mall concourse or department. If you can, find a bathroom near the mall's food court or other well-trafficked area. And always accompany your child to the bathroom.
Never use a video arcade or toy store as a baby sitter; predators are on the prowl for unattended children. More then 100,000 children are abducted every year -- often in malls or department stores, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCME).
Find out whether the malls and stores you frequent have procedures to search for a missing child. Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target are among retailers participating in a program developed by the NCME. The program, called "Code Adam," was named after Adam Walsh, a 6-year-old Florida boy who was killed after being abducted from a shopping mall in 1981. As soon as a child is reported missing, employees scour the aisles. If the child doesn't turn up after 10 minutes, the police are notified.
It is estimated that about 21,600 children end up in the hospital each year after they've fallen -- or even leaped -- from shopping carts, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign. Children 5 years old and younger, particularly boys, are especially at risk. Shopping cart injuries include head and neck trauma, fractures, lacerations and damage to internal organs. Three children have died.
Part of the problem is that shopping carts can tip over easily because the wheel base is narrow. Adding to a cart's instability, children have a hard time sitting still.
Statistics compiled by the National Safe Kids Campaign show that 80 percent of parents leave their children unattended at least once during a shopping trip. The only way to keep children safe is to stay with the cart at all times. Even if you strap your child into the cart seat, he may still manage to tip the cart over. Just wiggling out of the harness or seat belt can quickly unbalance an already unstable load. To keep shopping carts from tipping over:
Place young children in the seat, not the basket.
If the cart comes equipped with a harness, use it. Otherwise, bring your own.
If you've got a child walking alongside you, make sure he does not try to climb inside the cart to join his brother or sister. You might want to pack a second child into a stroller or backpack -- it's cumbersome, but safer.
It's not a good idea to let a child push or steer the cart for you. He may not see or be seen by shoppers and could be struck or run over by other carts. Those miniature carts some stores supply for children to push pose the same problem, so stay close by and make sure your shopper-in-training follows the flow of traffic.
Jostling through crowded malls while carrying your jacket, juggling countless bags and keeping your child from breaking anything you can't afford to buy makes you an attractive target to criminals looking to grab wallets, purses and your purchases. To stymie would-be thieves:
A man should carry his wallet in the front pocket of his pants, rather than in a back pocket or in his jacket.
A woman should hold her purse close to her body, with the opening facing toward her; when walking with another person, the purse should be held between the two.
When you can, avoid using revolving doors -- particularly the automatic kind. A thief with good timing can grab a purse or package and make a quick getaway in the time it takes you to emerge.
Consolidate purchases into one or two large shopping bags so you can keep track of everything.
Never leave your purchases unattended, even for a few minutes.
Consider using a special fanny pack designed to foil pickpockets, see our travel products page.
As parking areas fill during the holiday season, shoppers are often forced to park far from mall exits, sometimes in poorly lighted areas. Now that there is less daylight, you're likely to find yourself entering the mall while the sun is up and leaving after dark, so make sure there are lights nearby before parking. Other parking tips:
Park as close to entrances and exits as you can. No one wants to circle the lot for an hour waiting for a good spot to open up, but give it a shot, at least for a few minutes.
If forced to the far reaches of a lot -- or even beyond the lot -- seek a spot that's well-lighted or near a well-traveled roadway.
Stow your purchases in the trunk. When you're weighed down with packages, you may be tempted to throw them in the back seat and return to the mall to continue shopping.
If your purchases are in plain view, you may return to find your car windows smashed and your presents stolen.
Save your most expensive purchases for last, so you can head straight home.
Have your keys ready when you approach your vehicle. Before entering, check that no one is hiding in the back seat.
To protect yourself, handle your bank card with the same prudence you would cash or credit cards and keep it in a safe place. Memorize your PIN code so you won't have to write it on your card or a piece of paper, and carry it in your purse or wallet. And keep your PIN to yourself -- if others are nearby waiting to use the ATM, don't let them see which buttons you press.
More ATM advice:
Choose a bank with an ATM located in a highly visible, well-lighted area.
If you must withdraw money from an ATM after dark, have someone accompany you. Also, try not to make large cash withdrawals.
If you see anyone loitering near the machine who looks or acts suspicious, walk away.
Minimize time spent at the ATM by having your card in your hand and resisting the temptation to count the money after it has been dispensed.
While using an ATM, look around from time to time and be aware of what's going on around you. If anything suspicious happens, immediately cancel your transaction and leave.
Never leave your receipt in the machine. Also, keep your receipts so you can check them against your monthly bank statements.