As shoppers flock to retailers in search of the perfect gifts for all the good little girls and boys on their Christmas lists, local law enforcement officials are offering tips to safeguard your shopping experience.

Erath County Sheriff Tommy Bryant and Stephenville Police Chief Patrick Bridges are warning area residents that the crooks of Christmas are on the prowl.

Bridges said purses are an easy target for crooks lingering in crowds at retailers and waiting to pounce on unsuspecting shoppers in parking lots.

"When inside of a store, it is important to watch your purse at all times," he said. "Never leave your purse or other possessions in a shopping cart unattended. It only takes a second for your possessions to be taken, and with the number of shoppers inside of stores, locating your purse and whoever took it will be almost impossible."

Bryant said an open purse or pocketbook is an open invitation.

"Never leave your purse open," Bryant said. "And never leave your purse or wallet in your vehicle. Keep all of your valuables with you at all times. Leave anything that is not necessary, including extra credit cards, at home."

Bridges said shoppers who exit retail outlets with purchases in tow and handbags hanging off their shoulders are another easy target. He said crooks see the shopping foul and can simply drive by, grab the purse and keep going.

"Purses should always be carried on your inside shoulder," Bridges said, adding that it is also a good idea to have keys in hand before leaving the store. "You should always keep distractions at a minimum."

Bridges said shoppers who plan to visit multiple stores in a single outing should be careful to place purchases out of plain sight when off loading them into vehicles.

"Too many people go from location to location and attempt to hide purchases while in a parking area before leaving their vehicles to enter another store," Bridges said. "Anyone looking for someone to prey on would see such shoppers as an easy target."

Both men said gifts should be hidden in a trunk if possible, and that windows should be raised and doors locked at all times.

Bridges said when carrying cash, always be discreet.

"Don't flash your money and never let anyone see what is in your wallet or purse," Bridges said, adding that debit card users should safeguard personal identification numbers. "If someone is standing too close, politely ask them to step back to be sure they can not see your personal access code."

Bryant said carrying a wallet or checkbook in a front pocket is another wise idea.

"Always pay attention to what is going on around you," Bryant said. "Try to finish your shopping before dark and never walk around shopping centers alone. After dark, it is best to have a security guard escort you or keep watch until you are safely at your vehicle."

And for those who plan to make holiday shopping a family event, Bryant said there are several things to consider.

"You should always designate a prearranged meeting place in the case that your family gets separated," Bryant said. "It is also a good idea to carry a recent photo of the children in your party in case you need assistance in locating them, and make note of what everyone is wearing so they can be easily identified."

Finally, Bryant said don't forget to remind your children that police officers and security guards are there to help and never allow a child to shop or go to the restroom alone.

"We want everyone to enjoy their holiday shopping, but we want to make sure that their holiday is not ruined by some mistakes that can be easily avoided," Bridges said.