All across the United States, nonessential businesses have closed as we battle the COVID pandemic. Since we can no longer go out to stores, we’re doing more and more of our shopping online. Hitting the virtual mall is convenient, and it keeps us safe from germs. But at the same time, it exposes us to a different threat: package theft.
In some neighborhoods, you don’t dare order a package if you aren’t 100% sure you can be home when it arrives. “Porch pirates” can descend within hours or even minutes to snatch it off your doorstep. According to a 2019 report by C+R Research, more than 1 in 3 Americans have personally had a package stolen, and more than half know someone who has. The average cost to replace the stolen goods was $109.
One upside of being home most of the time is that it’s easier to catch our packages before thieves can get to them. However, even now, deliveries can slip through the cracks. Maybe the carrier doesn’t ring your doorbell or you just happen to be at the grocery store when it arrives. And of course, if yours is an essential occupation, you still have to go to work every day.
Fortunately, there are several ways to stop porch pirates from snatching your stuff. New technologies, such as smart locks and smart doorbells, can either deter thieves or completely cut off their access to your packages. And if you aren’t comfortable with these new-fangled gadgets — or with their cost — you can use a variety of simpler strategies to stop thieves the old-fashioned way.
New smart home devices are changing the way we manage our lives. These gadgets can automatically adjust the temperature, lighting, and even music in our homes for different times of day. They can warn us if a pipe is leaking or alert us if we’re about to run out of milk.
With so many high-tech gizmos doing so many jobs, it’s hardly surprising there are also several that can protect us from the threat of package theft. Modern technologies can help us track our shipments before they arrive, monitor them on the porch, and even reroute them to safer locations.
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Online Package Tracking
The nice thing about this approach is that it doesn’t require you to buy any new gadgets. All you need is your trusty smartphone or tablet or even your desktop computer at work. Then you can keep a close eye on the tracking information for any purchase. You can watch your shipment’s progress from the warehouse to the delivery truck to your home.
By keeping tabs on your package as it approaches your door, you can plan for someone to be home when it arrives. Some e-tailers even provide text or email updates so you can see the exact moment a package shows up at your door. That way, you can run out (or run home) to grab it immediately.
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By setting up a security camera trained on your doorstep, you can catch thieves on video as they grab your packages. Of course, having footage of the theft doesn’t get your stolen goods back, but it can help the police nab the offenders. You can also share the video with your neighbors and even local TV stations so others can be on the lookout for the thief.
Also, for some thieves, just the sight of a camera is enough to deter theft. When they realize everything they do is going to be caught on video, they decide your tempting-looking package isn’t really worth the risk. You can boost the deterrent powers of a camera by making sure people know it’s there. If it’s not in a particularly visible spot, try posting a sign on your porch with a message like, “Smile, you’re on camera.”
There are several types of cameras you can use to catch porch pirates in the act:
- Battery-Powered Cameras. A battery-powered security camera can do multiple jobs. You can use it indoors to keep an eye on your pets one day, then move it out to the porch the next day when you’re expecting a delivery. Both CNET and Digital Trends recommend the Arlo Pro line of cameras, which are weather-resistant, easy to move, and equipped with motion sensors and a siren you can set off remotely if you spot a thief. Or for a cheaper option, look into Zmodo outdoor cameras, which cost less than $100 for two.
- Smart Doorbells. Smart doorbells like Ring and Nest Hello can cost anywhere from $100 to $500. These allow you to see, hear, and even speak to visitors from your phone, tablet, or PC — including yelling at them if they’re making off with your parcels. Most of them include motion sensors and can send you an alert when a caller shows up. Reviewers at CNET particularly like the Nest Hello, which you can link to the Nest Aware cloud service for facial recognition.
- Light and Camera Combos. Some security cameras integrate with your porch lights. When their motion sensors detect a persona arriving, they switch the lights on full blast. Aside from spooking thieves, this feature helps you see the faces of legitimate guests so you know who’s at your door. Both CNET and Digital Trends like the Ring Spotlight Cam, which also includes motion alerts and a remote-activated siren.
If you like the idea of a siren to deter thieves, but you don’t want to monitor your front stoop to know when to set it off, the Package Guard could be just the right solution. This battery-powered device, about the size and shape of a Frisbee, is marked with the words “Place packages here.” Once a package is in place, removing it sets off a loud alarm. A thief who tries to lift it will most likely drop it and run, leaving it in place until you return home and turn off the device with your phone.
If you already have a home security system, Package Guard can work in tandem with it. In addition to setting off an alarm, it triggers your security camera to take a photo of the person who stole it. You can instruct the device to share this image automatically with your neighbors, the police, or your Facebook network.
In-Home or In-Car Delivery
Security cameras and alarms can deter some thieves, but they don’t physically stop them. However, if you have smart locks on your doors, you can receive package deliveries inside your home, where thieves can’t get to them. Instead of opening with a key, smart locks use a digital code you can give to a delivery person to let them inside for a package dropoff.
Of course, the downside of a setup like this is that it involves letting a stranger into your home. That’s why Amazon offers a more elaborate in-home delivery system, called Amazon Key, with safeguards to make sure no one gets in without permission or does anything inappropriate inside.
Available only to Amazon Prime members, the Amazon Key kit includes a smart lock and an Amazon Cloud Cam. When an Amazon order arrives, the system notifies you, and you can use the camera to watch the delivery person enter and leave. The system also keeps a video recording of each delivery.
Amazon Key also offers an in-car delivery option. This feature only works if you have a connected car service plan, such as FordPass Connect, Lincoln Connect, HondaLink, AcuraLink, OnStar, or On Call. To use it, select in-car delivery when you make an Amazon purchase and select a publicly accessible spot to receive the package. On the day it’s due, park in that location, and the delivery person can use your Amazon Key to leave the package in your trunk.
There’s one snag with using Amazon Key to protect your packages: Amazon has suspended all in-home and in-car deliveries because of the COVID-19 crisis. However, Amazon still offers access to its Amazon Hub Lockers. You can find these self-service kiosks in apartment buildings, malls, convenience stores, and grocery stores in more than 900 U.S. cities and towns.
When you place an Amazon order, you can arrange to have it delivered to your Amazon Hub Locker rather than your home. As soon as Amazon drops off the package, it sends you a six-digit code you can enter to pick it up. Because you get a separate code for each shipment, no one can ever steal your code and use it to gain access to your locker. Amazon Lockers are available only to Amazon Prime members at no extra charge.
You can also create a smart locker with a BoxLock. It’s a smart padlock you can place on any suitable container. When a delivery arrives, the carrier presses a button on top of the lock to scan the package. BoxLock then connects to your Wi-Fi to confirm the package matches an order you placed. If it does, the lock opens, and the carrier can drop your package in the box.
UPS, FedEx, and the U.S. Postal Service are all BoxLock partners. You can also use your box for things intended for other people, such as an organization receiving a donation or a friend borrowing something, by texting or emailing them an access code.
You can buy a BoxLock by itself or as a bundle with a compatible container. During the COVID-19 crisis, BoxLock is offering these bundles for free to anyone with a compromised immune system. It allows at-risk people to avoid any face-to-face interaction with delivery drivers.
Using new technology to stop porch pirates has its downsides. Aside from the cost, many people have privacy concerns about smart technology. For instance, a 2019 investigation by Gizmodo found that Amazon’s Ring doorbells and its crime-alert app, Neighbors, could record virtually everything that happened in a neighborhood and share it not just with neighbors, but with the general public. Many people simply aren’t comfortable with this level of daily surveillance.
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However, there are ways to safeguard your shipments that don’t involve any advanced technology. Many of these are the same techniques people have been using for decades to prevent home burglaries. Others require cooperating with the delivery service, your neighbors, or your employer.
Keep Your Home Well Lit
Burglars, including porch pirates, try to keep their dirty work unseen — or at least unnoticed. To this end, they sometimes wait until dark before heading out on a package-lifting run. By keeping your front porch and sidewalk well lit, you make it harder for them to stay in the shadows. Knowing their actions will be literally under a spotlight could make many of them decide your package simply isn’t worth the risk.
Of course, you can ensure a well-lit area by leaving your porch light burning all day. But that wastes a lot of electricity. Instead, consider putting outdoor lights on a timer. You can choose a programmable timer that switches lights on and off at preset times each day or an even simpler mechanical timer that turns lights on for a specific length of time. Easier still, replace the bulbs in your outdoor lights with special light-sensing bulbs that switch on automatically when it gets dark outside.
To make the arrival of unwanted callers even more noticeable, put a motion sensor on your porch light. It automatically switches the light on whenever someone approaches your door, drawing attention to anyone trying to sneak up and help themselves to your packages. You can install a motion-sensing light fixture or use motion-activated bulbs in your current light fixture.
Clean Up Your Landscaping
Another way to bring the dirty deeds of package thieves out into the open is to clean up the landscaping around your home. Trimming trees and bushes makes it easier for your neighbors to see someone walking up to your door, so they can’t sneak up and lift a package without being noticed. American Alarm Systems also recommends removing hedges and other handy hiding spots for thieves.
However, making your front door too visible has a downside. It makes burglars more likely to be seen, but it also makes it easier for them to observe a tempting package on your doorstep. To strike a balance, consider leaving some small plants in place — big enough to conceal a package but not big enough to hide a full-grown human.
Train Your Dog
According to a 2017 story in The Guardian, one of the biggest deterrents for burglars is a barking dog. Former burglars interviewed by an insurance company said that next to a security camera, a loud dog was the main thing that would make them think twice about breaking into a home. Burglars polled by Idaho’s KTVB7 in 2017 also said dogs, especially large ones, would typically make them back off and try a different house.
Porch pirates aren’t trying to break into your home, but they’re still likely to get nervous if they hear an excitable-sounding dog inside. Even if there’s no chance the dog can get out and attack them, it still attracts attention, which is just what they don’t want. So, if you have a dog, training it to bark when it hears someone at the door can scare off thieves.
Make It Look Like You’re at Home
Most of the burglars interviewed by KTVB7 said they would hesitate to break into a house if it looked occupied. A car parked in the driveway, lights on inside the house, and especially the sound of a TV or radio would all send them running.
Thus, you can scare off thieves of all kinds by making it look like you’re at home. A simple way to do this is to put indoor lights on a timer so they turn on when it starts to get dark — just as they would if you were in the house. Even better, put a timer on your TV or radio, which thieves said was an even more significant deterrent than a lit-up house.
It’s an approach that requires a little bit of technology, but nothing complicated or expensive. You can get a programmable timer for indoor lights for as little as $30 or a basic mechanical timer for under $15.
Team Up With Neighbors
If you’re expecting a delivery and you know you won’t be home to receive it, ask a neighbor you trust to keep an eye out for it and take it into their house as soon as it arrives. When you get home, you can stop by and collect it from them. You can return the favor by taking in their packages while they’re not home.
You can even make arrangements with a neighbor to receive your packages directly at their house so there’s no risk of them missing the delivery. They can also sign for your shipment if a signature is necessary. Just make sure you observe social distancing when you pick it up.
One reason so few people can do this nowadays is that people are less likely to know their neighbors well than they were in the past. According to a 2015 City Observatory report, only 20% of Americans regularly spend time with their neighbors, and about 30% never interact with them at all. Forty years ago, those numbers were reversed.
One way to get to know your neighbors better is to join a neighborhood watch. That not only gives you an introduction to each other but also establishes you as members of the same team, working together to keep your area safe. Of course, any neighborhood watch that’s not meeting virtually has probably temporarily stopped convening due to the pandemic. So another option is to join Nextdoor, a social media service that helps people in the same neighborhood connect. In this case, using just a little bit of modern technology can help you form good old-fashioned neighborly relations with the people who live near you.
Make Delivery Requests
In many cases, when you place an order, you can leave specific instructions for the delivery person. For instance, you can direct them to leave the package in a particular spot where it’s not visible from the street or instruct them not to drop it off without getting a signature first. If you know you won’t be there to sign for it, you can ask them to get a signature from someone else, such as a neighbor or the building superintendent.
Unfortunately, not all e-tailers provide a place for delivery requests. Also, even if you make one, there’s no guarantee the driver will follow instructions. It can be more effective to speak directly with your postal carrier or with the UPS or FedEx delivery person who handles your neighborhood and make your requests in person. Not only does the personal contact reinforce your request, but the carrier may also be able to offer some useful suggestions about where to conceal your packages. Just be sure to maintain social distancing. If you have a glass storm door, you can talk through that.
Ship Packages to Work
If you know you’re going to be at work when a delivery arrives, the simplest approach is to have it sent to your workplace. Toting the package home afterward can be slightly inconvenient, but at least you can be sure it gets to you.
Naturally, check with your employer beforehand. Some companies take the position that the mailroom is for company mail, and employees shouldn’t clutter it up with their personal packages. However, if you ask the office manager politely, there’s a good chance many are willing to sign for at least the occasional personal delivery.
Use an Alternate Location
If your workplace isn’t an option, maybe there’s another local business that can receive your delivery for you. For instance, if you’re expecting a shipment via FedEx, you can ask to have it held for pickup at one of the thousands of participating FedEx delivery locations around the country. There’s no extra charge for this service.
FedEx can make deliveries to FedEx offices and shipping centers, Walgreens drugstores, and Albertsons, Kroger, and Dollar General stores. However, some of its usual locations have closed during the COVID-19 crisis. Before shipping to any location other than your home, check to make sure the business is open.
UPS takes this service one step further. You can arrange to have any package shipped to a UPS Store, no matter what carrier you’re using. The store notifies you by phone, text, or email when your delivery arrives and holds it until you’re able to pick it up. UPS charges a fee, which varies by location. Contact your local store to inquire about pricing.
Set a Booby Trap
If you’ve tried everything you can think of and nothing seems to stop the porch pirates, you can at least get your revenge on them by putting out a booby-trapped package. A 2018 story in Marketwatch highlights one particularly elaborate example created by NASA engineer and YouTube personality Mark Rober. He created a fake package that, when opened, set off a glitter bomb followed by repeated spritzes of fart spray. The package also included four phones, each facing a different direction, to capture the thieves’ reactions on video and a tracking system to recover it once they ditched it.
Of course, most people don’t have the time or the skill to craft anything that elaborate. However, anyone can set out a decoy package filled with something thieves don’t want, like your household garbage. According to Fox News, one Colorado woman — a repeat victim of package thieves — successfully used this strategy to get rid of her trash three times running in 2019. Just make sure whatever you do isn’t potentially dangerous.
Playing a childish prank like this won’t do anything to recover your stolen packages. Still, it can make you feel better to know that at least one package thief will pay for their crime. And if enough people start doing it, perhaps porch pirates will eventually decide swiping packages just isn’t worth the hassle anymore.
Foiling porch pirates is satisfying, but what’s even more helpful in the long run is preventing them from striking in the first place. To do this, you have to look at the crime from the thief’s perspective.
In some cases, what drives this type of crime is desperation. Some thieves are addicts looking for drugs or for anything they can sell to buy drugs. Others are homeless or needy and are just looking for a way to feed themselves. The best way to fight this kind of theft is to donate to charities that fight homelessness, hunger, and addiction so fewer people steal out of need.
However, many package thieves aren’t needy at all — they’re just greedy. They steal out of a sense that they’re entitled to something they don’t have. You can’t do much about these people, but you can help stop the next generation of package thieves by teaching good values to children. That can include your own children if you’re a parent, your students if you’re a teacher, or any kids who are part of your life.
A 2013 study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that people are more likely to steal when they feel deprived compared to others but less likely to steal or condone stealing when they see it as unfair. Thus, two good ways to discourage future package theft are to teach children a sense of gratitude, helping them understand how fortunate they are, and to guide children to see how theft is unfair to the victims. When kids focus on how package theft harms others — costing them things they paid for and may have needed quite badly — they’re more likely to respect other people’s property rather than looking at it as fair game.
Have you ever lost a package to porch pirates? What did you do in response?