As Washington-area shoppers hit the stores with their sights set on that perfect holiday gift, they, too, are being targeted -- by criminals taking advantage of the big-ticket purchases and shopping sprees that come with the season.

Historically, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is when police are on the lookout for crimes such as robberies, shoplifting and thefts from automobiles, as criminals prey on shoppers who are sometimes treat the things they purchase too casually, said Don Gotthardt, spokesman for the Fairfax County police.

"When there's more people out and there's more commerce taking place, that's just that many more opportunities for someone to take advantage of people who are simply trying to get their shopping done," Gotthardt said.

Safe for the holidays
When out shopping during the holiday season, police say to be mindful of your surroundings to avoid thefts and robberies.
» Keep cash in an inside pocket, not a wallet.
» Don't leave valuable merchandise in view in your car.
» Park and walk in well-lit areas.
» Never leave a purse unattended.
» Protect your credit card and keep receipts.

Police throughout the region have begun to step up enforcement efforts at shopping malls and retail outlets since Black Friday, and with good reason -- a group of five men took advantage of the late-night sales at Arundel Mills mall in Hanover by robbing a 14-year-old boy of his shopping bag early Friday morning, according to Anne Arundel County police.

The boy told police that the five men, described as black males between 17 and 21 years old, snuck up behind him as he walked out of a Bed Bath & Beyond store. One of the men punched the boy, while the others swiped his bag, full of newly purchased merchandise.

And a late-night sale at a San Antonio mall turned ugly when shoppers fought over their place in line as stores opened. A man trying to cut in line started arguing with people, and one of the shoppers who was punched in the ruckus pulled out a gun, causing people to scatter.

Sometimes the pressure of the holiday season simply gets the best of people, according Chris McGoey, a California-based security consultant.

"People who ordinarily might be honest and safe and kind can go the other way," McGoey said.

On Black Friday, Fairfax County police sent a team of anti-theft officers trained to look out for customers.

Officers in Prince George's County are also told to spend any available time they have at shopping centers throughout the county, hoping their presence acts as a deterrent to would-be criminals in stores and in parking lots.

Shoppers should be aware of their surroundings and careful about what they carry with them and where they store goods, according to Maj. George Nader, commander of Prince George's County's 3rd District station. Gifts kept in vehicles in parking lots should be stored in safe locations, not in plain sight on car seats, he said.

"If people would simply lock those away, put them in the house or put them in the trunk out of sight, that would discourage a lot of thefts out of autos," Nader said.

Customers should also guard their identity, not just their purchases, according to Montgomery County police Capt. Paul Starks. Shoppers should take copies of all their receipts this season and be wary of where they put down a wallet or credit card.

"Someone who appears just to be the next customer in line might be, if something is laid down like a credit card or wallet, able to pick that up pretty quickly," Starks said.

Many times, people must simply be reminded to stay as vigilant as they are at other times of the year, and not get distracted or caught up in the holidays, said McGoey.

"It's the time of year when people lose focus," he said. "If you go out to the mall and watch people, it's kind of like their eyes are glazed over and they're not paying attention. That's good news for the bad guys."