There's a couple of things your should be aware of when you are surfing.
Always watch your position relative to the beach. Line yourself up against something on the beach and stay in front of it. If its windy you might get blown across the beach or if there's a slight side current then you'll be pushed out of position. After you catch a wave you'll often be out of position too. Always paddle back so you are in line with the object again. Yes I know this can be tiring but you have to do it! You'll find yourself in trouble otherwise.
Next time you are in the water, watch a good surfer. They'll always paddle back to the same spot constantly. Compare this to novice surfers who will always get dragged down the beach by the wind or current!
Regarding rips, when water comes in with a wave it has to go back out again. If there's a deeper gully in between 2 sand banks then that's where the water will flow out. Usually the waves don't break as cleanly in a rip and the water often looks rippled or bumpy. You may think this calmer water is safer but its not. If you are caught in a rip, paddle across it to where there are more waves. I know this seems counter-intuitive but this is what you need to do.
If you notice you are in a rip, don't panic. Just jump up on the board and paddle across the beach so you are out of it. You don't need to paddle like your life depends on it, just paddle nice and calmly across.
This vid gives a nice representation of rips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkObAXrjpzs
Try to spot the bumpy water and notice where the waves are not breaking as cleanly.
Main thing is though to watch your position!!! Constantly look over your shoulder to spot where you are and don't be lazy. Get out of the water and walk back up the beach if you need to. There's no shame in it.