ORLANDO, Fla. - What do the grocery store parking lot, the garage at work and even your own driveway have in common? They are all prime locations for a thief to target you and try to steal your purse or car.
Similar cases of thieves targeting women who are alone in public places are reported all of the time in Central Florida and across the country.
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Last November, three teenagers were accused of snatching a woman's purse while she was sitting on a park bench in Daytona Beach. In March, there was a series of purse snatchings at area grocery stores.
Three months ago, News 6 spoke to 72-year-old Maralene Knaus. She said her purse was taken as she was walked inside the Publix store on South Alafaya Trail after church on March 11.
"And he just yanked the purse off my shoulder," Knaus said. "When something like this happens, it just shakes you up."
What could help Knaus and other victims become more difficult to target? Investing in a personal safety device.
News 6 did some research and found the following top picks:
First on the list is the Robocopp sound grenade. The device costs less than $17 and, with the pull of a pin, it triggers a 120-decible alarm, which could be enough to scare off a thief or attacker.
But there is an even cheaper option: A personal safety device is available at Walmart for less than $10, and at 120 decibels, it turned heads when tested in the News 6 newsroom.
When trying it out in a parking lot at a busy shopping complex in Kissimmee, hardly anyone turned to look, however.
News 6 asked Osceola County Sheriff Maj. Jacob Ruiz if the small device, which can fit on a key ring, could distract an attacker, or at least buy someone some time.
"That may draw some attention to you," Ruiz suid. "I thought it would be louder, honestly."
Instead, Ruiz prefers the Athena wearable personal safety alarm, which is available online for $129. It not only sounds an alarm when pressed, it has a GPS and can alert your loved ones to where you are if you are concerned about your safety. It can also be easily attached to clothing or purses.
"It is a deterrent and technology's great," Ruiz said. "The big thing is not to solely depend on that, not to solely depend on your cellphone, (and) not to solely depend on the device. And that you let somebody know."
We teamed up with Ruiz at The Loop shopping complex in Kissimmee for further testing.
He said crooks prey on both tourists and locals alike, and they look for easy targets, like people who are distracted by their phones or kids and, therefore, are not paying attention to their surroundings.
"We are so attached to our mobile devices for communicating, even looking up coupons to the store, and so (thieves) prey on that," Ruiz said.
The major's number one tip? Put your phone away.
Easier said than done, right?
Here's what Ruiz said can happen if you don't:
"It just takes seconds for a criminal to take advantage of you when you're not paying attention," Ruiz said. "Usually, the victim is so traumatized that they usually don't get a good description of the subject."
Next, we asked Ruiz to see what shoppers at the Loop were doing right compared to what they were doing wrong.
We saw a woman who had a purse strap across her body as she walked with her young daughter. She wasn't on the phone and was paying attention to her surroundings. Ruiz said a thief would probably not have picked her as a target.
However, we then saw a young woman texting while wearing earbuds in her ears and not paying attention to her surroundings. Ruiz said that is exactly what a thief would have been looking for.
"They would start watching her, see what store she goes into," Ruiz said.
So what else can you do to keep from becoming a target?
Ruiz said making eye contact can be your number one defense.
"You just un-victimized yourself," Ruiz said. "When you are paying attention, and you look that bad guy in the eye and say, 'They just saw me. There's no way I'm going to target that person because they are going to be able to recognize me, tell police what I look like, what I was wearing, what I was driving.' Predators see that. Criminals see that. And they'll move on to an easier target."
Another thing Ruiz suggested was to look for people inside stores, too. If a man is hanging around the women's or kids' section alone and acts suspicious or appears to be following you, make eye contact and then go get help from a worker, Ruiz said.
He also suggested that if you're in a parking lot or a parking garage, to look around for people who could be hiding behind larger trucks and SUVs.
Ruiz also offered other important safety tips, like not staying inside your car surfing the web or listening to music alone for an extended period of time. He said that would be a time when a thief could easily jump in the car with you or put a gun to your head through the window.
"They prey on those individuals who are not paying attention, not alert," Ruiz said. "And it's easy to be targeted that way because you are not aware of your surroundings, not aware when there is someone suspicious around you when you should be. You could be preventing yourself from being a victim."
Ruiz also said some criminals watch for people who just bought high-priced items, then follow them from the parking lot to their homes. That's why it's important to check your rearview mirror for anyone suspicious who may be following you.
"They'll follow you home, or they'll follow you to your next shopping area," Ruiz said. "They notice you loading in the big boxes and know exactly what you're buying."
Ruiz also suggests not shopping alone. But he said if you are alone, be certain you pay attention to your surroundings.
"All those things combined really is going to increase your safety and lowers your chance of being a victim," Ruiz said.
Ruiz said crime statistics show women are more vulnerable to crime, which is why his department encourages women to take self-defense classes.
He also recommends you try visualizing how you would react in the event that you're ever the victim of an attack. Otherwise, you could freeze in the moment.
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