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Beware, holiday package thieves abound. Here's how to avoid them

The holiday season is almost here, and shopping online is likely to remain a popular alternative to the department store. The analytics company comScore said in a press release that consumers spent $35.3 billion online between November 1 and December 26, 2011, a 15 percent increase over the same period the previous year.

Online shopping offers a safe and comfortable respite from unruly crowds, but it has its own hazards. Many people who have gifts shipped to them have the packages left at their doorsteps by their carriers, and these unattended parcels prove irresistible to thieves, who need to do nothing more than walk away with them when no one’s looking.

The most obvious way to prevent this is not to have packages delivered to your home in the first place, and have them delivered to your workplace or a post office box instead. However, not everyone has these options.

“Companies don't want the mail room logistical issues or potential liability issues that come from handling employees' personal packages,” NCR Corp. Public Relations Manager Mark Scott said in an e-mail. However, he said that some companies offer options for their customers who can’t get packages at work and don’t want to rent a post office box, but don’t want to risk having them stolen off of their porches either.

“One thing many retailers are now implementing is order-online/pick-up in-store,” he said. “Customers can go to the retailer's web site, order a product and select an option of having it available at a nearby store.”

One online retailer that helps its customers negotiate this potential theft problem is the e-commerce giant Amazon.com. It has introduced Amazon Locker, a service that allows products ordered through the website to be delivered to secure locations, such as participating 7-11 stores.

Customers choosing this option choose a location by address, zip code or nearby landmark during the checkout process. When the package is delivered, the customer receives a pick-up code by e-mail or text message, which he or she uses to open the locked compartment where the package has been delivered.

There are limitations to what can be delivered via this option. Package dimensions cannot exceed 11.8 x 11.8 x 11.8 inches, and its weight cannot exceed 10 pounds, so that flat-screen TV with 5.1 surround-sound speakers and separate subwoofer is sadly ineligible. However, the service is ideal for the delivery of phones, mp3 players, cameras and other products that represent an expensive loss when stolen.

There are also the tried and true methods of package security that have worked for decades prior to the invention of e-commerce, such as making arrangements with a neighbor to accept packages for you. You can also ask the U.S. Postal Service to hold your mail if you anticipate being away while a package is being delivered.

Finally, if you don’t receive a package that you were expecting, it may not be that it was stolen from in front of your house—you may be the victim of mail fraud. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service recommends that you first contact the shipper to make sure the items were sent correctly. If they were, it is recommended that you immediately file a complaint with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

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According to recent research, men hunt when they shop, while women gather. In other words, men know what they want while women tend to pick up extras to "save time later." TODAY financial editor Jean Chatzky and male shopper Gary Chester explain how women can save money by taking cues from the way men shop.