AARP Eye Center
With an explosion in holiday spending — and shipping — approaching, it’s time to outsmart package thieves.
“Porch Pirate Pilfers Package” is a headline that has shown up across the U.S. as online shopping and home deliveries soar. Scoundrels have stolen stuff off porches in places as diverse as Bismarck, North Dakota; Claremont, California; Laredo, Texas; and West Palm Beach, Florida, news stories show.
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In the year past, porch pirates have ripped off a 65-inch TV, a $1,651 wheelchair and a $200 golf club, the reports show. Two-armed bandits have hauled off boxes containing baby clothes, school supplies and tree stump remover.
The term “porch pirate” appeared as far back as 2011, when ABC News called it a “growing problem.” By November 2020, a survey of 2,000 online shoppers showed that 43 percent — up from 36 percent a year earlier — said they had had a package stolen during the previous 12 months, Chicago-based C + R Research said. In the more recent poll, the average value of the purloined package was $136.
Analysis of 67 cases
Ben Stickle is a police officer-turned-academic who led a 2019 study on porch piracy. Stickle, an associate professor of criminal justice administration at Middle Tennessee State University, and his team analyzed 67 cases of porch piracy captured on door camera video and posted on YouTube. The thieves, successful in all but four cases, netted 98 packages in all. Among the study’s findings:
- All the thefts analyzed occurred during daylight hours. Researchers said that may have been because camera footage was clearer, because pirates relied on daylight to check for the presence of packages, or because opportunities were greater, since more residents were away from home.
- The offenders were a nearly even split of men and women; most appeared to be age 45 or younger.
- Most thieves were on their own, though in some cases, another person acted as a lookout or getaway driver.
- The crooks mostly drove up in motor vehicles — in two cases, rental U-Hauls — though many were on foot and, less often, on a bicycle or skateboard. (Pirates also have used a golf cart or walked around pushing a baby stroller, news accounts show.)
- The packages, in most cases, were visible from the street.
Porch theft is a common crime because, unlike bank robbery or car theft, it requires little skill, says Stickle, who for six years was a police officer in Bowling Green, Kentucky. And while thieves might be disappointed to snag tree stump remover — instead of an ultra-high-definition TV — the ease of reselling stolen goods on online marketplaces allows them to turn a quick buck, he says.
Because home shipping “has just skyrocketed,” Stickle believes the problem “is going to continue to be worse.”
7 Simple Steps
The good news: There are steps you can take to protect your packages.
1. Retrieve a package as soon as it arrives. You can usually track a package, and if you’re away, arrange for someone to be home when it’s scheduled to arrive.
2. Have the sender require a signature for delivery.
3. Pick up your package someplace else. Using ship-to-store, you can often have an item sent to the major retailer that sold it.
- Amazon uses Hub Counter and self-service Hub Lockers for package pickup at retail locations, including some grocers and convenience stores.
- FedEx Delivery Manager lets recipients redirect delivery to a nearby FedEx office, Walgreens store or other location. In plugging the service, FedEx says package tracking only tells you when a package is delivered to your home but won’t protect the item. It also warns that security cameras may not deter crooks and that lock boxes on your porch “can be expensive, difficult to install and take up valuable porch space.”
- UPS Access Point Network has more than 19,000 pickup locations, including the UPS Store, CVS and Michaels stores.
- U.S. Postal Service (USPS) Package Intercept lets consumers — for a fee — stop delivery or redirect certain packages that are not out for delivery or already delivered. This is not a guaranteed service and conditions apply. That said, U.S. mail and packages can be held at no cost (see Step 4, below).
4. Going out of town? Tell USPS to hold your mail and packages at the post office or until you request home delivery. Mail may be held for up to 30 days.
FedEx also allows vacation holds and so does UPS, though terms differ.
5. Have the package placed out of sight. Stickle uses a lockable porch box with numerical codes that delivery personnel use for access. The box can be anchored, for example, to decking or concrete.
Short of something like that, instructing a delivery person to place a package behind a planter, bench or column on your porch can help kept it hidden, Stickle says.
UPS My Choice lets recipients leave instructions about where packages should be left, such as at a back door, on the side of a house or with a neighbor. That service is free, but requesting delivery of a package to another address has a fee.
6. Consider a door camera for security. With some devices, you can use your phone, tablet or personal computer to see, hear and speak to anyone who has rung your doorbell or triggered motion detectors. However, as Stickle’s study shows and FedEx cautions, some crooks simply ignore door cams.
That said, if you happen to catch a thief in action, save the footage and alert the police. If it’s U.S. mail that’s been stolen, postal customers are urged to save the video and contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service by phone (877-876-2455).
7. Stay informed and watchful, and be a good neighbor. Nextdoor.com, Crime Stoppers and social media posts from law enforcement sometimes spotlight porch piracy.
Stickle remembers from his years as a patrol officer that when a neighborhood was hard hit by crime, until residents took action, “it was almost impossible” for police alone to improve things. “I would really encourage your readers, some of whom may be at home, to keep a careful eye out [and] be involved in their neighborhood,” he says. “And alert the police or other neighbors if you have somebody who looks like they're stealing packages.”
Crooks can be creative, he cautions. Some tail delivery trucks to snap up fresh deliveries or masquerade as delivery drivers, even carrying dummy packages or holding papers and clipboards to hide the fact that they’re up to no good.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 10, 2020 and has been updated with new information.