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'Tis the season to be wary.

Holiday shoppers aren't the only ones out in full force. So are are the pickpockets, the shoplifters, the car thieves, the con men and the house burglars.

"A lot of times, burglars take presents to give to other people," said Lancaster police Capt. James L. Natalizia.

"We've had them come into houses and take all the presents from under Christmas trees."

"Crime always picks up right after Thanksgiving and continues until right after Christmas," Natalizia said.

"It's just starting now," Amherst police Capt. Donald P. Kraus added. "You can just feel it. It's that time of year."

A rash of house burglaries has hit the Town of Tonawanda, with about 15 reported in the last week, according to Lt. David Kreutzer of the town's detective bureau. Normally, one or two burglaries occur in a week.

Kreutzer said a burglary ring appears to be responsible for many of the break-ins, in which thieves entered through windows and stole jewelry, cash and an occasional videocassette recorder without disturbing the house.

About $500 worth of Christmas gifts were stolen Saturday in a break-in at a Mill Street home in Lockport, Joel T. Kureczka told Lockport police. He said the thieves broke into his home between 1 and 5:30 p.m. and stole a $100 radio in addition to the gifts.

Many holiday season crimes are committed by professionals. Others are carried out by otherwise law-abiding citizens.

"Some people are desperate this time of year, and desperate people do desperate things," said Erie County Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins.

Victims are especially vulnerable during the holiday season, police said.

Parked cars -- either in jammed parking lots or on lonely side streets -- often are loaded with gifts. And crowded stores and shopping malls present the perfect environment for pickpockets and shoplifters.

Police recommended these steps to help assure a crime-free holiday season:

People away from home should leave lights on and have neighbors keep an eye on things. Suspicious persons or activities should be reported to police.

Cars should be locked, and gifts and other valuables placed in the trunk. "If anything of value is visible, they'll just smash the window and open the door," said Capt. Jack B. Daley of the West Seneca police. "If the gifts are in the trunk nobody knows they're there."

Keep purses and wallets in secure places and never leave them on counters. And don't get so involved in shopping that you neglect what's going on around you.

Temper your holiday spirit with a bit of healthy skepticism. An innocent-looking person who brushes against you may be a pickpocket, police said. Someone striking up a conversation may be distracting a victim while a partner grabs a purse or shopping bag.

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