‘Porch Pirates’ Steal Holiday Packages as They Pile Up at Homes

Posted December 19, 2017 8:24 p.m. EST

SEATTLE — ’Tis the season for giving and, according to law enforcement officials in Washington County, Oregon, taking as well.

Two weeks ago, its sheriff’s department ran a sting operation to catch porch pirates, thieves who swipe packages from Amazon and other companies from doorsteps. Detectives from the department’s property crimes unit put several electronics items worth more than $500 in a box, dropped in a tracking device and “baited” a volunteer’s front porch in the town of Aloha.

Sure enough, a pirate struck just after 2 a.m., and deputies traced him to a home two blocks away. In an apparent effort to cover up his deed, the 27-year-old suspect microwaved the tracking device, so he was charged with evidence tampering in addition to theft.

Porch pirates have darkened peoples’ doorsteps for years. Law enforcement agencies say they think the crime is on the rise, along with the growth of online shopping. “There’s more packages for them to grab,” said Angela Sands, a spokeswoman for the Lincoln, Nebraska, Police Department.

And the rewards are especially attractive during the holiday season. United Parcel Service plans to deliver 750 million packages this season, up from 500 million five years ago.

“One of the outcomes is you’ve got one of the easiest ways to steal something ever,” said Nirav Tolia, chief executive of Nextdoor, a social network for neighborhoods that has become a popular outlet for residents to gripe about stolen boxes.

The more efficient thieves follow UPS and other delivery trucks, scooping up packages as they are dropped off. Two weeks ago in Lincoln, two people were arrested in a car stuffed with more than 30 packages that the police said had been swiped from doorsteps.

Nextdoor said that during the holiday months, it usually sees a 500 percent increase in posts on its social network about missing packages. Research commissioned by businesses that make packaging products like boxes and surveillance cameras suggests that from one-fifth to one-third of respondents have had deliveries stolen from their porches. It is yet another sign that the endless capacity of technology to improve lives has led to endless criminal innovation as well.

Mike Armstrong, a general contractor in Memphis, Tennessee, has earned a reputation on his neighborhood’s Nextdoor forums as something of a vigilante. By his own estimate, Armstrong has confronted suspected package thieves more than a dozen times over the last four years, once on his own porch with the aid of his surveillance system.

He said his neighbors call him the “strong arm of the law,” a play on his last name.

“It’s almost like this sick perversion I have, catching thieves,” Armstrong said.

Technology also is amplifying awareness of the problem, while serving as a deterrent. Internet surveillance cameras from Google’s Nest and Ring have made it easier for residents to capture video of package thieves in the act. Ring makes internet-connected doorbell cameras that start at $179. Homeowners can speak through the device to visitors — or bad guys — at their front doors using a smartphone app, even if they are not home.

YouTube, Facebook, Nextdoor and other social media are popular places for frustrated residents to share the footage. Camera companies like Ring have used the videos as marketing. Until those deterrent technologies are widespread, porch piracy appears to be proliferating.

Last week, a Tucson, Arizona woman was awaiting an irreplaceable package — one containing urns with her father’s ashes in them, sent from a funeral home in Oklahoma. In a Facebook post, she said she received notice that the package was delivered Monday of last week, and the courier was supposed to require a signature for delivery but waived it. She thinks the package was stolen.

In late November, a nanny in Everett, Washington, chased down package thieves at a home where she was baby-sitting, nabbing one of them and holding her until police arrived, according to local media reports. The incident was captured on a Ring camera.

Law enforcement agencies are stepping up their efforts to deter package thieves. On Cyber Monday, postal inspectors and police officers in the Portland, Oregon, area put out 21 bait packages. They made four arrests and recovered a stolen vehicle, according to Sgt. Christopher Burley, a spokesman for the Portland Police Department.

Steve Gaut, a UPS spokesman, said public perception of the problem is rising, “driven by the greater use and affordability of home surveillance technology and the pervasiveness of social media and related user-generated social content.” He said the company does not think there has been a significant increase in the per capita incidence of package theft, but he said that many victims never report their problems to the company.

Amazon, by far the nation’s largest online retailer, said the vast majority of packages make it to customers without being stolen, but declined to provide specifics. The company typically replaces deliveries that are reported stolen.

In November, the company began rolling out the Amazon Key service, which includes an internet-connected door lock and camera, installed with the customer’s permission, and allows couriers to enter homes and drop off orders. The camera records the couriers.

Walmart, the nation’s second-largest online retailer, did not respond to requests for comment.

Steven Kenworthy, a graduate student at Ohio State University in Columbus, in June expected a large box from Amazon with a $400 electric skateboard to arrive at his home. Amazon told him its carrier had delivered the item, but there was no trace of it.

“Some rascal snagged my package,” Kenworthy said. He went on his neighborhood’s Nextdoor discussion forums and found reports of missing packages and suspected thieves tailing FedEx trucks through the area.

“Everybody’s problems start feeling like your problems,” he said. “People were talking about how it was every single day packages would go missing.”

Amazon sent him a replacement skateboard at no charge within two days, he said. Kenworthy said he had no intention of installing a camera outside his home because he thought it would make him feel more violated.

“It’s going to make me mad,” he said. “I don’t want to see it.”