Chris Stokel-Walker
1.16.2020 3:16 PM

Crime

How can we stop 'porch pirates'? Academics say: don't publish this article

Constant news attention about package theft is making the problem worse. But researchers have some potential solutions.

Bianca Acosta has seen three packages disappear from her front door in the last three months.

She watched footage of the thefts captured by her Ring. The first time, a man on a bike rode up to the home where the 19-year-old lives with her parents in the Richmond Hills neighborhood of Queens, New York, and snatched a box from the family’s doorstep. He rifled through its contents at the end of the block and left what he didn’t want on the road. The second time, thieves took items and a $5,000 check they tried to cash unsuccessfully. The third time, an older man got out of a car, picked up a small package from Acosta’s doorstep, then visited her neighbor, where he nabbed a giant Amazon package.

“Each time, nothing much happened to the people who stole those packages,” Acosta says. “[The Ring video] basically was just proof from the cops to Amazon that it was stolen, and these people get away free with constantly stealing packages.” She now rushes home from work as an after-school counselor at a preschool in order to try to get any packages before someone else can.

Thieves steal an estimated 1.7 million packages a day in the U.S., according to one expert.

Acosta has had enough, and she isn’t alone. Finding concrete data for the number of packages stolen is difficult — in part because when a delivery doesn’t arrive at your house, you don’t contact the police. You contact the company that shipped it. But there are many stolen — an estimated 1.7 million every day in the U.S., according to José Holguín-Veras, an engineering professor and director of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems. “Our conjecture is that the people who are stealing these packages are going to try and steal as many packages as possible,” says Holguín-Veras.

He's also certain that, as the way we shop changes, the problem is getting bigger. Police departments only started recording data on package thefts four or five years ago, according to Holguín-Veras, and have seen an increase in that short time. Industry sources he speaks with say that around four or five percent of packages never make it to their destination for one reason or another; a colleague of his estimates it could be as high as 10 to 15 percent.

Package theft is an entry-level crime, says Holguín-Veras. “It’s a crime of opportunity, something that is like one step above shoplifting,” he says. And police departments seem to treat it at that level. They have much higher priorities to investigate than where the pair of slippers you ordered on Amazon Prime went to once the delivery driver dropped them off outside your door.

But as the number of thefts increases, there is more attention being paid to how to prevent it. Which is where Ben Stickle comes in. A former cop who got into academia at Middle Tennessee State University, he has analyzed 67 videos of porch package thefts uploaded to YouTube and monitored how the thefts take place, purportedly the first study of its kind to monitor how package theft takes place.

“We found thieves tended to operate during daylight hours; homes closer to the roadway are targeted more than those way back; and the package size, visibility, and whether or not it had a brand on it seems to have been a factor,” says Stickle. Like Holguín-Veras, he also reckons that package theft is seen as a simple crime, and one fuelled by social media commentary and media coverage.

Buoyed by apoplectic coverage from local TV stations that thrive on the fish-eyed footage of brazen thefts, the porch pirate has become a figure of hatred in the public imagination. If we all begrudgingly hate Amazon for exploiting its warehouse staff and imposing unrealistic schedules on their delivery drivers, we hate the porch pirate even more, because they make the toil meaningless. “People see it on the news and think, It’s an easy thing for me to do,” he says. “Burglary takes a little bit of skill, robbery takes more skill, but there’s almost no skill in walking up to someone’s house and taking a package.”

Women accounted for 51 percent of the thieves seen in the videos — a lot higher than in other crimes.

Stickle’s study had some interesting findings. Women accounted for 51 percent of the thieves seen in the videos — about on par with the shoplifting gender breakdown, but a lot higher than in other crimes. And around 25 percent of the time, porch pirates were accompanied by someone acting as a lookout.

The former cop and his colleagues are partway through producing a research paper that will look at the different ways of deterring theft, whether that’s installing lock boxes or Amazon Key, a service that allows delivery personnel time-limited access to a person’s home, or delivering the packages to a third-party location lock box.

The researcher has surveyed around 700 everyday people about which methods they’d prefer, based on cost and convenience. But to prevent thefts from happening, Stickle recommends that the delivery person hides the package, perhaps behind a strategically-placed plant that blocks the view from the street, or the customer picks it up promptly — solutions which, it’s fair to say, you probably don’t need to be an academic to figure out. (A potential, if ridiculous, consideration for the future is building new homes further away from the street: Stickle found no packages stolen from homes more than 50 feet from the curbside.)

Acosta has tried almost everything, with varying degrees of success. Installing Amazon Ring just caused more frustration and angst: the thieves didn’t care, and Acosta was just left with evidence of the crimes committed against her. One time when she contacted Amazon about the thefts, the company tried to help by offering to install a locker — provided she pay. “It’s not fair we have to pay more money for a locker on top of the money we spend on buying,” she says.

She’s even tried following Stickle’s advice to get the packages delivered to a location out of the line of vision from street level. “Usually I leave a note to the mail carrier to leave it in the back — but they don’t listen,” she says. “They just want to have an easier job, so they leave the packages right in front where everyone can see.”

Acosta has shied away from ordering online lately. “I haven’t purchased a lot in the last couple of weeks because of it, just in fear of my money going to waste if it does get stolen,” she says. If more people start protesting with their wallets, perhaps everyone involved — from big tech to the delivery person — will be a little bit more conscientious about our precious packages.