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While investigating an April 26 theft at a Vons in Thousand Oaks, investigators stumbled upon a crime involving gift cards. The scheme involves a thief tracking gift card numbers then using them once they have become activated with money.
MEGAN DISKIN/THE STAR

As the holiday shopping season begins, Ventura County law enforcement agencies advise residents to keep a close eye on their wallets and bank statements. 

Thefts from vehicles and porches tend to be more prevalent during the gift-giving season. However, the credit cards that pay for those presents can become compromised without ever leaving a purse or pocket. 

Black Friday shoppers, Cyber Monday mavens and last-minute buyers should keep the following tips in mind to avoid being a target for crime. 

Ventura Police Department Sgt. Edward Caliento said although the agency will be upping patrols near major shopping areas, residents can play a big role in prevention. 

Some thieves lurk outside these locations and inconspicuously watch as shoppers load up their vehicles with newly bought items. 

“You probably aren’t going to notice them at all,” Caliento said. 

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But they are watching and waiting for shoppers to leave their vehicle so they can steal what’s inside, Caliento said.

“We suggest not leaving items in your car for a long period of time,” said Ventura County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Julie Novak, who works in the community resources unit at the Camarillo station. 

Other thieves know that more shoppers mean more vehicles in these parking lots and potentially more opportunities to get into them, Caliento said. 

Many check doors to see if they’re unlocked and steal any valuables inside, Caliento said. Ensure any valuables are out of sight and that all doors are locked, Caliento said. 

Thwarting porch pirates

After a package is delivered, get it off your porch as soon as possible, authorities say. 

“If the package is going to be delivered at a certain time, have a neighbor pick it up off the porch,” Senior Deputy Tim Lohman said. 

Buying package insurance and signing up for delivery notifications is also advised, Caliento said. 

An even better solution would be having any packages sent to the workplace, should employers allow that, Lohman said. 

Home burglaries can increase during the holidays. Alarm systems and doorbell cameras are deterrents, Novak said. Burglars knock on doors to see if anyone is home, and if they don’t get an answer at the door, they break in and head straight for the Christmas tree or master bedroom, Novak said. 

That’s why if you hear a knock, it’s important to acknowledge through the door that someone is home, Novak said. 

Watch your wallet

While out shopping, keep your wallet or purse close by. Lohman, who works in the financial crimes unit at the Thousand Oaks station, said there has been an uptick in wallet thefts in restaurants and grocery stores across the city. 

Lohman said there was also a reported increase in wallet thefts during the 2018 holiday shopping season. 

Thieves go out in groups of two or more and distract shoppers, getting them to step away from their cart where a purse might be sitting, Lohman said. Others in the group will then steal the wallet, more specifically the credit cards, while the victim is distracted, Lohman said. 

By the time the victim makes their way to the checkout counter, the stolen credit cards have already been fraudulently used, Lohman said. 

Retailers don’t typically ask buyers to show identification when using credit cards, he said. 

But thieves don’t even need a person’s physical credit card to use it. 

Online shopping sites that may not be secure and email scams can be the access point for personally identifying information, Lohman said. 

Make sure online retailers use the “https” coding in their website link, Lohman said. That will show it’s a secure website, he said. 

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One recent scam included a website claiming to be Netflix sending an email stating the account holder’s credit card information did not go through, Lohman said. The email asks the user to input that information again. 

“Don’t be quick to click. Do your research first,” Lohman said. 

Other common scams include calls about missing jury service, a Southern California Edison bill and a police chief warning of an arrest warrant against you, Novak said. The scammer will ask to pay a certain amount with a gift card, Novak said. That should be the immediate red flag, she said. 

Call and verify with these companies or agencies before paying anything, Novak said. 

Make sure to check on elderly people with landlines, who are often targeted for these scams, Novak said. 

Avoiding card complications

When giving loved ones gift cards for the holidays, be aware of the packaging it comes in, Lohman said. If it looks like it has been tampered with, it probably has, Lohman said. Some thieves write down gift card numbers and use them, waiting for the card to be activated, Lohman said. 

By the time the person receiving the gift card gets it, there may no longer be any cash on it, Lohman said. Purchasing gift cards online through a retailer and sending them to the recipient is a way to get around that, Lohman said. 

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Reloadable cash cards may also be the best way to do online holiday shopping. That way, any credit card number that may be stolen isn’t going to mess up your credit score or be connected to your bank account, Lohman said. 

If using credit cards to shop online, shoppers should make sure their bank statements and credit card activity are checked regularly, Caliento said. 

“Identity theft is huge, unfortunately, so just be careful, especially during the holidays where we’re using our credit cards a lot,” Caliento said. 

More: Holiday boutiques: Here’s a list of events in Ventura County for unique gifts

Megan Diskin is a courts and breaking news reporter with The Star. Reach her at [email protected] or 805-437-0258. 

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