How safe are you? If government statistics are any indication, there’s reason to feel somewhat secure.

The latest U.S. Department of Justice crime figures show personal crimes -- which include rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated and simple assault -- are at their lowest levels on record.

Property crimes -- which include burglary, car theft, and theft -- have stabilized after years of decline.

Yet this is no time to be complacent. Many criminals prey on people who are off guard, say crime and self-defense specialists who talked with WebMD. Criminals look for people who are not paying attention to their surroundings, and then use the element of surprise to their advantage.

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Victims From All Walks of Life

“Criminals don’t want to get caught,” says Tony Farrenkopf, PhD, a clinical and forensic psychologist in private practice in Portland. “They ask themselves, ‘Does this person look attackable? Does this person look vulnerable? Can I get away with something here?’”

In the U.S., criminals were able to carry out 24 million crimes in 2004. For every 1,000 people age 12 and older, there occurred:

--One rape or sexual assault

--Two assaults with injury

--Two robberies

Regardless of the improved crime rate, crime still affects everyone in all types of neighborhoods; it crosses economic and racial lines, says Larry Jordan, author of "The Dirty Dozen: 12 Nasty Fighting Techniques for Any Self-Defense Situation." He is a former member of the U.S. Army Rangers and Special Forces and is a master-level instructor in several forms of martial arts.

Taking Charge of Your Safety

“It is a reality,” Jordan says of crime. “People are being victimized or are being targeted to be victims each and every day."

To avoid becoming a victim, you need to take charge of your own safety. There are no guarantees, but actively tuning your thoughts and actions toward crime prevention and self-defense can help lower chances of becoming a casualty.

“There’s a saying in the martial arts world that the best form of self-defense is not putting yourself in a position where you have to defend yourself,” says Bill Nelson, a sixth-degree black belt master instructor in Soo Bahk Do Karate, and author of "Your Weapon Within: How to Lower the Risk of Sexual Assault."

“We all have a responsibility to be safe,” he said.

WebMD has compiled expert advice to show you how to avoid dangerous situations and how to defend yourself once you’re in them. If you regularly practice the recommended ways of thinking and acting, there is hope that you will not become a victim, but rather, an active defender of your life and property.

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Habitual Security

Preventing crime from happening requires an active mind and body. It is more than just a few martial arts moves. It means paying attention to your instincts, to other people, and to your surroundings. It means constantly training your brain and limbs to act defensively. It is a way of life.

“Security has to be habitual,” says Jordan. “If you allow yourself to get into a lax way of thinking when it pertains to your security, it is very difficult to change that pattern when you find yourself [in not-so-safe situations].”

To clarify his point, Jordan points to security alarms that people have in their homes but do not turn on. The hardware does nothing to thwart burglars if it is not used.

People have an internal alarm as well. It usually tells them they are walking into a bad situation. Yet many ignore it because they have a false sense of security or are in denial that crime can happen to them.

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Five Ways to Avoid Danger

To fine-tune your personal alarm, crime experts make the following suggestions:

1. Trust yourself. Many times, your eyes, ears, nose, skin, and tongue will give clues indicating that something threatening is ahead. Another powerful indicator, widely known as a sixth sense, can also hint at danger. “Trust when something doesn’t seem right,” advises Nelson.

2. Be aware of your surroundings. No matter how safe you think a neighborhood might be, it’s still not a good idea to leave the front door open, your valuables in the car, your purse on top of your office desk, or to flaunt all of your expensive jewelry and other belongings. These actions simply provide temptation and opportunity for offenders, says David Silber, PhD, a consultant psychologist in Washington, D.C. who has worked with police.

Silber also advises against walking through dark, isolated alleys, fields or parking lots. Bad things happen in “safe” areas all the time. In fact, would-be attackers lurk around places where they can have the opportunity to catch people off guard, and remain anonymous. Again, they usually don’t want to get caught.

3. Pay attention to the people around you. This advice is part of both listening to your instincts and being aware of your surroundings. You can often sense peoples’ intentions just by the way they look at you. Heed warning signs even when you are with people you know and trust.

In 2004, U.S. Department of Justice statistics show seven in 10 female rape or sexual assault victims stated the offender was an intimate, a relative, a friend, or an acquaintance. Officer Jason Lee, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, says questionable looks from people you know can gradually advance to touching or words that may make you feel uncomfortable.

“Tell someone else about the warning signs, someone who can help you, so we can prevent this,” urges Lee.

4. Act confident and focused. Just as you can sense people’s feelings, others can sense yours as well. Predators look for people who are meek, mild, weak, unfocused, and distracted.

“Criminals are looking for easy pickings. They’re looking for someone who they can take by surprise and will likely not resist,” says Jean O’Neil, director of research and evaluation for the National Crime Prevention Council. She suggests presenting yourself in an assertive manner. When walking down the street, make eye contact with people who look at you. O’Neil says that signals the would-be offender that you are in charge and aware that they are there.

5. Understand that alcohol or drugs can cloud judgment. Certain substances can certainly dull your senses and slow down your reaction time to danger. They can also lower other people’s inhibitions and make them more aggressive or belligerent. It is for this reason that Silber says certain places like bars and pubs may present some danger, particularly if they’re crowded. He also says mutual drinking can increase chances of rape or sexual assault among people who know each other.

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How to Defend Yourself

Taking steps to prevent crime can help lower chances of an attack, but there are no guarantees of complete safety. For this reason, it’s a good idea to have several plans on how to defend yourself and your property.

“Think through what you will do,” urges Robert McCrie, PhD, professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “Will you willingly give up your wallet or your purse, and if you’re willing to do that, isn’t it a good idea to make a photocopy of all my ID and credit cards and keep it in a safe place? Or will you keep it? What will you do then?”

Some of the plans will depend upon a person’s age, sex and personal fitness, but McCrie reminds us that even highly-trained FBI agents can get caught off guard and have no qualms about escape as their primary plan.

Fight or Flee?

There is some debate over whether fleeing or fighting back will provide the least risk. Silber, however, says it’s best to err on the conservative side, which is to run away if possible.

If escape is not an option, Farrenkopf suggests firm resistance, particularly in cases of rape or sexual assault. With people you know, he urges being clear about saying “No” to sex, and to avoid flirting or mixed messages. With both intimates and strangers, he says physically resisting and then escaping is the best option.

Submitting to an attack because of fear does not prevent it, says Farrenkopf. He says surveys and anecdotal evidence show the difference between rapists who have completed rape and those who have attempted it is their victims’ reaction. “In the completed rape, the victim usually froze and submitted,” he says. “In the attempted rape, the victim fought, resisted, and escaped.”

Tips for Escaping or Fighting Back

How do you escape, fight, and survive? Experts offer the following tips:

1. Have an escape plan. Wherever you are or wherever you are going, know the layout of the place and visualize an escape route. Thinking this way is not being paranoid, it’s being cautious, says Nelson.

If you’re at home, knowing where your power switch is, and knowing your way in the dark, can give you an advantage over intruders. If you’re outside, knowing the layout of the town -- where the sketchy areas are, where populated streets and venues are -- can help you to both prevent and escape an encounter with an attacker. If you’re at work, knowing the structure of the building can give you an idea where to flee.

2. Train your body. You don’t have to have the physique of a football player to defend yourself, but it helps to be in relatively good shape. “How can you rely on yourself if you’re not physically fit?” asks Nelson. “Could you run? Could you kick them? Could you last a little bit in a battle?”

Remember, you don’t have to win the fight against an attacker. You just need to be able to survive it. Nelson says people who fight back may have more chance of injury, but they have better chances of survival.

“You might get a black eye or a broken arm, but if you don’t get raped, the black eye and the broken arm is going to heal far quicker than the trauma of being raped,” he says.

3. React quickly to danger. Response time is critical. Since the offender is counting on a surprise ambush to carry out his crime, you need to use the same element of surprise to escape or counterattack.

O’Neil says this could mean running toward lights and people, or it could mean screaming or making noise with whatever you have to get other people’s attention. If you’re grabbed by the wrist, Lee says to try to juggle your hand so that you can pull it away in the area where the attacker’s fingers can open up. If escaping is not an option, Jordan says a quick and efficient self-defense is key.

“If you’re just flailing about, you may be ineffectively exerting energy, and that will cause you to question what you’re doing,” says Jordan. He recommends striking only at vital targets, which are areas of the body where you can inflict the most pain and damage. This will likely make it easier to disable the offender and get away. Some vital targets include the top center of the skull, eyes, temples, ears, windpipe, knees, insteps, base of skull, and spine.

For more information about how to defend yourself and avoid crime, check out classes that are often available at schools, local community centers, local martial arts facilities, and hospitals. McCrie also recommends checking out books on self-defense and talking with your local crime prevention officer.

With our thoughts and actions focused on crime prevention and protection, we can hopefully do our best to make our part of the world a safer place to live.

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By Dulce Zamora, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Tony Farrenkopf, PhD, clinical and forensic psychologist, Portland. Larry Jordan, author, The Dirty Dozen: 12 Nasty Fighting Techniques for Any Self-Defense Situation. Bill Nelson, sixth-degree black belt master instructor, Soo Bahk Do Karate; author, Your Weapon Within: How to Lower the Risk of Sexual Assault. David Silber, PhD, consultant psychologist, Washington, D.C. Jean O’Neil, director of research and evaluation, National Crime Prevention Council. Robert McCrie, PhD, professor of security management, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City. Officer Jason Lee, spokesman, Los Angeles Police Department. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics: “Crime and Victims Statistics.”