SALT LAKE CITY — Five people suspected in a cross-country theft and identity fraud spree were arrested in Utah Thursday after police say they stole credit cards from shoppers and merchandise from several big businesses.

With Black Friday just a week away, officers are using the incidents as a reminder to shoppers to keep their guards up.

Late Thursday, five people were arrested after police say they stole credit cards and used them at big-box retail stores such as Target. The group rented a car in Miami on Nov. 3 and committed retail theft in Texas and Colorado before coming to Utah, said Cottonwood Heights Police Sgt. Gary Young.

When police finally caught up with them in Salt Lake City, they discovered thousands of dollars in stolen merchandise in their vehicle, Young said.

The three men and two women are accused of starting their Utah crime spree at TJ Maxx, 6995 S. 1300 East in Cottonwood Heights. While a woman was shopping, she stepped away to look at something, leaving her purse in her shopping cart, Young said. When she got to the checkout line, she realized her wallet was missing.

While the woman was in the process of calling police, the thieves went just a block away to Target, 7025 Park Centre Drive (1435 East), and used the woman's credit cards to buy high-end laptops and thousands of dollars' worth of gift cards, Young said.

Investigators later watched the store surveillance video and placed calls to other Target stores, as well as local police departments, to alert them to be on the lookout for the group.

Two hours later, about 11 p.m., security at Target in Salt Lake City, 1110 S. 300 West, spotted five people matching the suspects' descriptions. Police were called, and the five were arrested. Inside their van parked in the Target lot, detectives found thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise from Target and other stores in Colorado and Texas, Young said.

A similar situation happened in Farmington on Thursday when a woman reported to police she had four credit cards missing. By the time she contacted her credit card companies, more than $5,000 worth of merchandise had already been purchased.

The woman told investigators she was at Marshalls, 340 N. Station Parkway, when she was approached by a man asking about merchandise. While she was being distracted, another man took the credit cards out of her unattended purse, said Davis County Sheriff's Lt. Susan Poulsen.

Those credit cards were used at a Target and an Apple Store in Salt Lake County. At one location alone, more than $3,500 in merchandise was purchased on the stolen credit cards, she said.

Investigators suspect the incidents in Salt Lake and Davis counties were committed by the same group and were investigating Thursday.

The incidents serve as good reminders to the public to be careful when shopping.

"The holiday season is fast approaching. A few ounces of prevention will go a long way," Young said.

Shoppers should keep their valuables with them at all times in the store, he said. And when they put the items in their vehicles, they should put them in the trunk and not in a front seat where the newly purchased merchandise is clearly visible.

"Most of these crimes are crimes of opportunity," Young said. "In 30 seconds, someone could be walking away with the stuff you just purchased."

West Valley Police Sgt. Mike Powell said his department works months in advance preparing for Black Friday. The visible presence of extra officers in some of the retail stores helps both with crowd control and traffic congestion.

"Just the mere presence of officers is very helpful and very beneficial. It really has a deterring effect," Powell said.

Stores typically hire and pay for the extra officers out of their own budgets, he said. The benefit is extra security at the stores without a decrease in the services the department normally provides throughout the rest of the city.

For the most part, Powell said, Black Friday shoppers who line up hours before a store opens waiting to be the first ones in the doors don't cause many problems.

"Most everybody is there with good holiday spirit in mind," he said. "(The presence of police officers) reminds individuals to be on their best behaviors and typically alleviates people from getting carried away."

Powell said the best advice for Black Friday shoppers is to be safe-minded and plan ahead.

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam