» MAP: Vehicle Thefts, Burglaries At SoCal Shopping Centers
» LIST: Vehicle Thefts, Burglaries At SoCal Shopping Centers
LOS ANGELES (CBS) — With Christmas around the corner auto thieves are gearing up for their shopping season... And it could be your car at the mall.
"There was glass everywhere, outside, in the back seat. It was a mess," said Asia Kalejs describing what she saw after returning to her car at the Northridge Fashion Center.
"You can still see some scratches," Kalejs said.
Her car was broken into and her backpack -- loaded with books from Pierce College -- was stolen.
"Everything for school was gone up to that point and it was finals, so I had nothing to study," Kalejs said.
Paul Bartlett went shopping for just 30 minutes at the Antelope Valley Mall.
"I came out and my car was gone. It was ultimately a shocker," Bartlett said.
It would be shocking for anybody, but especially so for Bartlett as an L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy.
"Here I am, off duty at the mall and I'm the one calling the sheriff's department for help," Bartlett said.
Kalejs and Bartlett are not alone. We crunched the numbers for 50 malls in Southern California and ranked them for car thefts and burglaries -- just in time for holiday shopping.
Police certainly have their hands full with car thieves, whether on the streets or at the malls.
We rode with the LAPD, as they parked what is called a bait car on the street with the keys in the ignition. The idea is simple -- once a thief gets in the car and starts to drive away, police disable it and the car stops.
Midway through the night someone took the bait.
"He's in. He's in the car," an officer said.
The guy drove away, but down the block, police shut down the car.
"I'm going to shut him down before he gets on the freeway," an officer said.
At first the suspect refused to get out, but the officers rushed the car and took him under arrest.
"We want them to think that every car that is sitting there could be the bait car," an officer said.
In that scenario police purposely leave the keys in the car, but at the shopping malls, that is not normally the case. Smashing a window is the most common way they break in.
Police who work in the task force for auto-theft prevention said it is typical of what can happen during the holidays.
"I think it is more of a season for stealing stuff out of the cars at the malls because a lot of people go to the mall and put their clothing, gifts inside, the go back in and shop again."
So what are the top malls for auto theft and break-ins? We contacted dozens of police agencies and found Westfield Shopping Town in West Covina to be number one with 91 automobiles stolen over the past 13 months. Second on the list was Stonewood Center in Downey with 83 followed by Los Cerritos Mall with 76.
Westfield shopping town in West Covina was also first in break-ins with 111. The parking garages around third street promenade in Santa Monica came in second with 91 followed by Los Cerritos Mall, which had 72.
In a written statement Westfield West Covina said "we wish the number could be zero" but with "more than nine million shoppers" a year...it works out to 'an incident rate of about one in 45,000."
So how can you protect yourself during the holidays?
"A shopping center is like a smorgasbord for auto thieves because there is such a variety."
Security consultant Chris McGoey says the way you park may actually help.
"Try to park as close to the entrance as possible. Try to go at times when there is going to be more traffic in and out of the property. If you have an alarm system, use it."
And, of course, don't leave packages or anything in plain view -- a lesson Asia Kalejs will never forget.
"I learned it the hard way, but I did, I learned my lesson now."
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