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What happens with stolen packages? Porch pirates out in force over the holidays  1 Month ago

Source:   USA Today  

SAN FRANCISCO – John Priskorn's porch pirate story is unlike almost all others because of how it ended – his package was recovered, the culprit arrested.

He’s the rare exception to a growing problem. More Americans are doing their shopping online, which made up to 9 percent of all retail sales in the United States as of September according to the Department of Commerce. But those packages, so often left out in the open upon delivery, are just too enticing to thieves.

“I know this is America and you should have a God-given right to have packages delivered to your front door. But we have these people throwing packages on your property at all hours of the day,” said Capt. Jack Hart with the San Francisco Police Department. 

While the FBI keeps no nationwide statistics on the problem, 30 percent of Americans say they've experienced it themselves, according to a survey by Xfinity Home, Comcast’s home security service. The Denver Police Department, which tracks package theft, has seen incidents rise every year since 2015.

It’s just common sense that along with all the tremendous upsides to ordering online, the downside is things can be stolen, said Cathy Roberson, a shipping and delivery expert with Logistics Trends & Insights in Atlanta.

“You’ve got something worth 200 bucks being delivered to your home? You better be sitting on your front steps when it arrives,” she said.

Priskorn tried to be. The package was originally scheduled for delivery on Saturday when he and his wife were both at home. It never arrived, “and on Monday we had to go to work,” said Priskorn, a product director with a health care company.

But what happened next played out like a movie. At 10:28 am on Oct. 22, the package was delivered to his home in San Francisco. Four hours later, a woman in a Johnny Cash T-shirt walked up to his doorway, grabbed the package, stuffed it in her purse and walked away.  

His doorbell Ring camera captured the theft and, because it detected movement, it sent him an alert on his phone. As soon as he saw the video, he downloaded it and posted it on Nextdoor, a social network for neighborhoods.

Within an hour he got a response from Hart, chief of his local precinct. A few hours later, he got a note from a nearby neighbor who’d had a package stolen about the same time. It turned out she knew her neighbors and found one who had a security camera positioned at the street level. And that camera had gotten footage of the woman driving off in her car – and its license plate. 

That broke the case. The neighbor emailed the footage to Priskorn, Priskorn sent it to Hart and Hart traced the plate to the owner of the car.

The captain sent two officers to the address to look for the car, and as they were watching it, the suspected thief got in. “She’s the same person in the video, and there in the back, in plain view, is the $18 Pokémon costume,” one of the items reported stolen, said Hart.

Equipped with a search warrant, the officers searched her apartment, where they found not just Priskorn’s package but multiple others. She was arrested and convicted of second-degree burglary.

All in the space of 24 hours.

When Priskorn posted on Nextdoor that an arrest had been made, 52 people commented. “It was a very pleasant surprise and a testament to community involvement, the Nextdoor platform and excellent police work,” he said.

There’s an adage in engineering, you can have something cheap, fast or good — choose two. That’s the reality of online shopping. Getting goods delivered quickly and cheaply means that good security tends to go by the wayside.

One result of making delivery as efficient as possible is that buyers almost never get to choose who will make their delivery. They might know their local UPS driver and even give them keys to their garage, but these days you can’t count on UPS, or any other carrier, being the one to arrive at your house.

Various companies sell electronic locks, and locked boxes, that consumers can put on their porch for deliveries. But that assumes that you have a porch. And that the delivery person will take the time to use it.

From the reviews of such products posted online, that’s frequently a failure point. They're rife with people posting scathing commentary about delivery people who ignored large notes saying "PLEASE PUT PACKAGES IN BOX" and instead left them at the door.

In fact, notes never seem to do much good. Yan Gelman lives in a four-unit condo building and he and his neighbors have a prominent sign asking delivery people to ring all the doorbells to find someone to leave packages with.

“We have a woman who’s retired and who’s home a lot. We have a couple who sometimes works from home and I always work from home,” said Gelman, who heads human resources for a San Francisco startup.

None of it did any good recently when he received a text at 3:10 p.m. from Amazon telling him his package had been delivered. “I clicked on the link, and it said that at 3:06 it had been directly handed to me,” he recalled.

It hadn’t.

He immediately ran outside, but it was too late.

“I found the package, but when I lifted it up it was really light.” He turned it over and realized that the thief had very efficiently used a knife to slice through the tape at the bottom of the box.

“I’d bought a $120 Amazon Cube and two bottles of vitamins. They left the vitamins,” he said ruefully.

 

A call to Amazon resulted in an immediate refund and the items were sent again. That's an important point to note – almost every e-commerce company will quickly resend a reasonable number of stolen orders, no questions asked. But in a time when many of us are conditioned to order things we need right away, the time lag and hassle of calling, being on hold and then getting the package resent is the real cost of having items stolen. 

And it's just not right, says Gelman.

“I felt wronged, indignant,” he said. Not only over the theft, but also the fact that the delivery person lied and because of that his package was stolen. “I asked if I could choose the carrier, because I know my UPS guy, and he’d never do that. But they said you can’t.” 

Police departments nationwide are dealing with increasing frustration over package theft, though there’s not a great deal they can do.

Denver has about a 7 percent arrest rate for porch pirates, said Doug Schepman, spokesman for the Denver Police Department. “They can be challenging to investigate and close with an arrest, which is why prevention is so important,” he said.

He encourages victims to call and report the thefts, to allow the department to track the problem. And he’s a big proponent of video cameras because video evidence of thefts at least gives police a place to start.

Some police departments put out bait packages, to catch thieves and hopefully get the word out on the street that this particular crime does have consequences. In Elk Grove, California, just south of Sacramento, local police launched a bait package program just before Christmas.

“We’re seeing package thefts increase, especially now during the holidays when people are having so many more packages delivered on a daily basis,” said Officer Jason Jimenez.

The bait packages contain a transponder, so officers are alerted when they’re moved. They then follow the thief and make an arrest.

Officers also conduct surveillance, linked in part to calls from neighbors. “We really encourage people to call in these thefts and to tell us when they see them happening. I know people think there’s nothing that can be done, but it really helps us,” Jimenez said.

But in the end it comes down to neighbors looking out after neighbors, said Hart of the Ingleside Station in San Francisco.

To him, package theft is the symptom, but the disease is that people don’t know their neighbors. There’s almost always someone who works at home or is retired on every block. “Have your package delivered to them, and then you can do something for them in return,” he said. 

Cameras help, but only if neighbors share information. Priskorn’s case was a great example, said Hart. “They have an email group, they solved it themselves. I didn’t really do anything,” he said.

The kudos he and his officers earned online was gratifying, but he says it may not have been the most cost-effective thing they did that day, Hart says.

“We have a captain, two sergeants and six officers who wrote four reports and a search warrant — for about $73 worth of goods.”

You’d think being at home when the package arrives would take care of the problem, but Gelman’s story (and the experiences of countless others) shows that you can’t necessarily depend on a knock on the door.

Of course, you can always opt to have things delivered to your workplace. But that gets in the way of the whole home delivery promise – you still have to carry the package home.

Not only that, but some businesses are beginning to crack down on all those personal deliveries. They can make extra work for receptionists and mailroom workers and create problems in storing all the packages.

There are other options. Because as much as 50 percent of all U.S. online purchases go through Amazon, let’s start there.

Amazon has three relatively foolproof ways to make sure your package isn’t stolen, but one’s slightly creepy, the other’s not always possible and the third is annoying.

The first is Amazon Key, a service launched last year. It requires installing an electronic lock on your door. Amazon sends its delivery person a message that allows them to briefly open that lock so they can place packages inside.

The in-home delivery option comes with multiple security and privacy safeguards but doesn’t appear to have been as popular as Amazon had hoped. That’s probably in part because as secure as it is, some people just aren’t comfortable having an unknown (and frequently changing) delivery person opening their door.

The second option is in-car delivery. This allows the delivery person to electronically unlock your car and leave packages in the trunk. It deals with the icky stranger-in-the-house feeling, but is still only available on limited car models, and requires that your car be parked on the street where the delivery person can get to it.

The third option is to have your packages delivered to an Amazon locker. When the item is delivered, you’re sent an email with a six-digit code that unlocks the locker and you have three days to pick it up. Amazon has more than 2,800 lockers in more than 70 metropolitan areas. However some, such as the ones at Whole Foods Stores, can fill up, especially around the holiday. And it does require a trip away from home to pick something up, which the whole idea of online shopping was supposed to save us from.

Both UPS and FedEx offer similar services allowing packages to be held at a secure location for pickup.

The U.S. Postal Service has long left notes telling customers to come pick up their packages at the nearest post office. The downside of this is that post offices are pretty much 9-to-5 operations and especially around the holidays tend to have long lines, making pickup less than appealing for some.

Of course, the ultimate solution to package theft is not to get packages at all, something people in especially crime-prone areas seem to be adopting as a preventive measure.

Priskorn says these days, unless he knows something can fit through his mail slot, he’s more inclined to go to a brick and mortar store and buy it in person, to save the time and hassle of having a package stolen.

And his saga isn’t quite over yet. His wife never did get back her purchase, a sweater and some socks. “The police are keeping it as evidence,” he says.

 

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