Since the attempted March 21 car-bombing at Haifa's Lev Hamifratz mall, police have managed to successfully smuggle numerous cars loaded with dummy explosive devices into one shopping mall after another. The objective was to check just how on their toes security guards at car-park entrances are. The conclusion: Not very. Shopping malls everywhere attract crowds, but all the more so in Israel because the conventional wisdom is that they are safer than outdoor venues - all who enter are given the security once-over - while offering similar pastime and shopping attractions. Mall popularity spiked here in the wake of the horrific campaign of anti-civilian warfare unleashed by Palestinian terror organizations during the second intifada. Although mall security checks aren't particularly thorough, they're better than what is typically provided elsewhere. Sporadic warning signs - like the 2004 explosion at the Tel Aviv Azrieli Center's underground parking facility - should have shaken our confidence about mall security far earlier. The fact that this blast was instigated by gangland wars didn't mitigate the failure to spot a rigged vehicle. The most worrisome of recent police tests took place in Haifa merely three days after the car-bombing that was "foiled" by sheer luck - due to mechanical failure, as distinct from proper vigilance. While mall managers and security guards should have been at their most watchful, undercover officers effortlessly drove cars filled with suspicious contents into Lev Hamifratz itself, Hakiryon and Rav-Mad malls. Not in a single case did any guard catch on. As a result, mall security chiefs were summoned to police headquarters the next day for a dressing-down. In each of the above instances large satchels filled with simulated explosives were placed in the trunks of the incoming cars. In plain view on the back seat of each vehicle were landmine replicas replete with triggering mechanisms. The guards perfunctorily peeked into the trunks and through the car windows, but not a squawk was raised about the "bombs." Haifa's malls aren't the only ones which abysmally failed the test so soon after a real mass murder attempt. The same laxness was characteristic countrywide, wherever malls were subjected to identical spot tests. These are routinely stepped up just before the high holy days and Pesach. The emerging sorry picture should cost us plenty peace of mind particularly as the holiday approaches and children are off from school. HEAD OF the Police Security Division Lt.-Cmdr. Meir Ben-Yishai noted at a recent professional conference that most security guards are ill-trained and many barely speak the language. Spine-chillingly, he conjectured that even if words like "sabotage" and "bomb" were boldly displayed in visible printed letters over suspicious packages inside mall-bound cars, the security guards wouldn't necessarily be tipped off. According to Ben-Yishai, the shocking fact is that these guards, many of them advanced in years and not physically fit, attend only a nine-hour Interior Ministry course before being outfitted with a pistol. That is the extent of their training. Since our lives are at stake, this lackadaisical approach must change. There is no reason not to demand that guards be better trained. If this carves into security contracting firms' profits, so be it. At present they blithely hire anyone willing to work for a pittance. Cheap labor often translates into substandard job performance. Many guards have clearly never set eyes on an explosive charge. Security companies shouldn't be licensed unless they employ skilled guards rather than just put anyone in uniform. It is far too easy today to start a security contracting business. The only mandatory qualification is that would-be entrepreneurs have no criminal record. Actual security expertise appears irrelevant. IT'S TIME for the police to openly caution people to avoid specific ill-secured malls, just as warnings are issued against swimming at unguarded beaches. However, even if the authorities don't drastically improve their performance, we the consumers possess a powerful weapon: to observe where security is mediocre and avoid such locations. Pretty soon, mall executives will catch on that more and more consumers are taking their business to venues where security is taken seriously.