As the Christmas shopping winds down and the harried crowds get larger, it's easy to get distracted.

But as The Investigator Tom Meyer has learned, crime at shopping centers is an issue, especially at this time of year.

That means crimes of all kinds – not just the headline-grabbing recent shooting at malls in New Jersey, though those have renewed safety concerns.

There haven't been any shootings here, but there have been plenty of other crimes.

A clerk at Great Lakes Mall in Mentor felt threatened when an unhappy shopper pulled out a gun from his jacket. Another incident at that same mall was alarming in a different way: a man was found furtively taking pictures of young girls. Then there were the tires slashed in the parking lot, and items, such as laptops, stolen from cars.

"It doesn't matter these days, you have to be constantly on guard no matter what neighborhood you're in," said a woman who was shopping at Crocker Park in Westlake.

The statistics show how true that is.

Channel 3 found about 250 reports of crimes at eight local malls during the holiday shopping season last year – from the day after Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve.

Crime at malls isn't something that surprises Cleveland resident Ed Durma.

"Just the economy, there's predators out there looking to make a quick buck," he says.

Steelyard Commons led the way with 66 reports of crime. Those included car theft, disorderly conducts, assault and robbery.

"I would never come down here at nighttime or when it was dark, by myself," says shopper Melanie Shaerban.

In second place for crime at shopping centers was SouthPark Mall in Strongsville. It had 51 reports of crime, among them the theft of cell phones, jackets, MP3 players, and prescription medicines from parked cars. One car had its tires slashed.

Emma Gyurky says the crime figures won't change her shopping habits.

"I usually assume that it's a risk at all times of year," she says. "I just try to keep things out of view in the car, hidden, locked up, and hope for the best."

Beachwood Place had 49 reports of crime, followed by Great Lakes Mall in Mentor with 25. Tower City was close behind with 23 – including assault, drug peddling, and theft.

Great Northern Westfield shopping center placed sixth, with 19 reports of crime. Crocker Park had the second fewest reports of crime, with 8 in five weeks, and Legacy Village in Lyndhurst had the fewest of all – 7 in five weeks.

But that doesn't offer any solace to Eve Whitmore, one of those 7 crime victims.

As she and her family dined at the Cheesecake Factory – "we were only in there for about an hour" – someone smashed the rear window of their SUV and stole an Apple MAC laptop, a Sony stereo receiver, and even their newly-purchased Christmas ornaments. The security guards patrolling the parking lot told her they must have just missed the break-in, Whitmore says.

Later, a Google signal indicated to her son the address at which his MAC was being used in Slavic Village, and he passed that information on to Lyndhurst police. The Lyndhurst police told the Whitmores they went to the address, but the woman answering the door denied any stolen goods were inside the house. So they left.

"Now we have a totally different take, a different view, of holiday shopping," says Whitmore. The tinted windows of the SUV still would provide some visibility, she theorizes, so "this season we are driving our car instead and putting items in the trunk."

A security officer working at Steelyard Commons offered some advice.

"Don't come out by yourself, just be observant of your surroundings," he said. "Make sure you secure all of your belonging in your vehicle, and lock your vehicle."

And, police officers would add, put those belongings in the trunk of your car, or cover them up.

Security experts say that thieves size up shoppers and are always looking to commit crimes of opportunity. For big crimes or small, malls can make an inviting target, especially when they are packed for the holidays.

Nationally-recognized security expert Tim Dimoff, who is based in Summit County, says that he firmly believes that a lot of crimes that happen at shopping centers and in their parking lots aren't even fully reported.

"The general public's confidence that these crimes will be solved is not high," he says. "They don't believe that their stolen goods will be recovered – because they know police have their hands full."

Also, he says, some people just end up blaming themselves for having created the situation that led to the theft, such as packages or electronics left in view in the car.

And yes, a habit like walking around and texting on your phone in a crowd is another way of creating an opportunity.

The bottom line is – don't make yourself an easy target.

This story was edited to change information originally reported about Great Lakes Mall. Mentor Police released incident reports rather than reports of actual crimes as we received from other municipalities. Some of those incidents were eventually determined not to be criminal activity. As a result, we incorrectly reported that Great Lakes Mall had the highest rate of crime when in fact their crime numbers are lower than some other local malls. We regret the error.

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