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FBI: E-mail about malls has no merit


October 28, 2001

The FBI tells mall retailers to file the message under "urban legends."

Authorities said the Mall-O-Ween e-mail - a heavily circulated warning to avoid shopping in malls on Halloween - isn't credible.

Mall managers might have ignored the rumor had it not been for the Sept. 11 attacks, which shattered the nation's psyche and forced managers to treat the warning as if it had a nugget of truth.

Some mall managers said they couldn't trust government reassurances that the malls would be OK.

"It would be irresponsible for us to do too little and it would be irresponsible for us to panic," said Joe Binder, assistant manager of the Oxford Valley Mall in Middletown. The mall is managed by Kravco Co., which also manages the Montgomery Mall in Montgomery Township, The Court and The Plaza at King of Prussia and the King of Prussia Mall in Upper Merion.

In response to the e-mail, the nation's malls have added security workers and surveillance cameras and imposed stricter parking rules. Some malls have installed concrete barriers at front entrances to prevent someone from turning the mall into a deadly carport, the Wall Street Journal reported.

General Growth Properties of Chicago, the manager of the Neshaminy Mall in Bensalem, eliminated in-store trick-or-treating at all of its 145 malls and shopping centers across the country. But Neshaminy spokeswoman Andrea Lazorchak stressed the decision wasn't in response to the e-mail, but because such fun activities could be perceived as "bad taste," given the nation's mood.

Employees also will be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary, Lazorchak said, noting that Halloween is a time for pranks that aren't related to the terrorism.

The e-mail claimed to be written by a friend of a woman who was dating an Afghan. The boyfriend is said to have disappeared on Sept. 6, but he mailed her a letter telling her to stay out of tall buildings on Sept. 11 and away from malls on Oct. 31.

The e-mail surfaced Oct. 5 and spread quickly. It's a kind of a penny ante form of terrorism, according to author Bill Ellis, an associate professor of English and American studies at Penn State's Hazleton Campus in Luzerne County.

Malls are forced to treat the e-mail as a potential threat even though investigators say it's not. Over the centuries, people have used Halloween to propagate various scary and murderous rumors, said Ellis, who teaches a Penn State course on folklore and popular culture.

These rumors are unavoidable, he said. So what's his advice, given the e-mail? "Trust your instincts."

The FBI said the message isn't credible. A mall isn't an attractive target for terrorists and the reported threat is so generalized that it doesn't make sense, he said.

"How do you know it's going to be Bucks County?" he asked.

Tasteful costumes - but no full-face masks, toy weapons or costumes that poke fun of people or cultures, particularly Middle Easterners - will be welcome at Oxford Valley Mall during its Halloween festivities from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Binder said.

He said a fully staffed security team would walk the corridors. Middletown police officers will work at the mall substation. Binder said the mall is employing a new surveillance system that improves coverage of the mall's exterior. The new cameras were planned before the attacks, he said. Parking restrictions also will be enforced.

He said the mall is considering a long-term plan to install large concrete planters at the entrances to prevent a motorist from driving through the doors.

The goal for mall operators is to improve security without scaring off shoppers, Willow Grove Park mall Marketing Manager Judy Trias said. The Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust operates the mall through its subsidiary, Preit Rubin Co., which also manages Christiana Mall in Delaware.

Trias has received at least 20 copies of the Mall-O-Ween e-mail from concerned people. She said the mall has been on a heightened state of alert since the Sept. 11 attacks and has beefed up security.

Customers shouldn't notice the difference, she said. What's noticeable is the mall adding Macys as an anchor store, plus a parking garage. There are surveillance cameras in the new garage, but that was planned before the attacks, she said.

Traditionally, Willow Grove Park mall doesn't sponsor trick-or-treating, although some stores have and will give candy to children, she said.

"The security will monitor the costumes - nothing in bad taste," she said, adding that in previous years the mall might have overlooked someone dressed as an Arab sheik. Not this year, she said.

As for the e-mail, Trias said her opinion is that the terrorists are going to try to reach people in all aspects of their lives.

"Obviously, retail shopping is very healthy for the economy, and I think the e-mail was another way for them to get people nervous and [convince them] to stay in their homes," she said.

"It will be business as usual," she said. "Shoppers are supposed to come here and shop and not feel like they have to watch their backs."

By HARRY YANOSHAK, Courier Times. Copyright © 2001 Calkins Newspapers, Inc.


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