Local police agencies are warning county residents to be on the lookout this holiday season: Thieves, burglars and robbers are out to steal the Yuletide spirit.
Police officials say they see a marked increase in crime -- particularly burglaries, thefts and robberies -- between the Thanksgiving and New Year's holidays.
"This is one of the most crime-filled seasons," said Terry L. Ford, a community services officer with the Bel Air Police Department.
With many homeowners away for the holidays, their houses -- often filled with Christmas gifts -- become targets for burglars, police say.
Likewise, holiday shoppers often leave purchases in their vehicles while on shopping trips, police say. Thieves can easily steal these items from cars, especially unlocked ones, in crowded parking lots.
In addition, the holiday season is the busiest time of the year for most merchants, making their brimming cash registers alluring to robbers, police say.
"The criminal element knows these things," said Lt. Steven J. Hess, a spokesman for the county Sheriff's Department. "They know how to operate."
In short, the holiday season spells opportunity for the criminal.
Burglaries in particular increase, police statistics show. There were an average of 80 burglaries in each month in the county between November 1989 and January 1990, Sheriff's Department statistics show, compared with an average of 62 burglaries a month for all of last year.
In addition to burglaries, thefts and robberies, police said they also see more cases of shoplifting, bad checks and telephone scams.
At least once a year, police hear about burglars breaking into a house, stealing valuables throughout the home, taking the gifts tucked under the Christmas tree and the tree itself, Hess said.
The long nights and short days that come with winter make it even easier for criminals to break into vehicles and houses, he said.
Statistics show that most burglaries occur within the first two hours after dusk -- often before many people are home from work during the winter, Hess said.
In addition, people are home less during the holiday season because they spend a lot of time shopping and visiting with family and friends, he said, giving burglars even more time to break into houses.
At malls and shopping centers, crowded shops make it easy for thieves to pick a shopper's pocket or snatch a purse, Hess said.
Meanwhile, thieves can go unnoticed in a congested parking lot, look for unlocked vehicles and steal items that are kept in them, he said.
But police say they are beefing up patrols to deter crime, particularly at malls and shopping centers.
Ford said the Bel Air department will add three officers to patrol the town's malls and shopping centers. The officers will cruise the parking lots and take foot patrols inside the stores.
Meanwhile, the state police started Operation Yuletide on Friday, a statewide crime prevention program for shopping areas.
Like the Bel Air program, special teams of troopers will be deployed at shopping centers and malls to work with local police officers and security guards, officials said.
The program calls for parking lot patrols and foot patrols inside shops by undercover officers looking for thieves and shoplifters, officials said.
Hess said citizens can do their share to deter crime simply by following such basic crime-prevention tips as locking the doors of their vehicles and leaving lights on in their homes.
Ford added that the principal way people can prevent crime is by being aware of their surroundings -- for instance, by keeping an eye on their neighbor's house or watching out for strangers.
But Ford noted that the holidays are a hectic time, with most people concentrating on shopping and preparing visits with relatives and friends.
"During the holidays, everything seems to be on a person's mind, except their personal safety," he said.