Fighting Pirates: A First Look at How to Prevent Porch Package Theft

porch package theft

The volume of packages shipped in the United States has increased by nearly 30 percent in the last few years. A significant portion of this increase is directly related to growth in online shopping. More consumers prefer to shop online and to have their orders conveniently delivered to their homes. Consumers do not have to be at home when their orders arrive, which means that packages are often left unattended on porches across the nation. As a result, the opportunity for crime has risen dramatically, resulting in what is commonly called porch piracy or package theft.

Package theft is a growing trend around the country. By some estimates, it is impacting 18 percent of Americans and creating havoc for retailers, consumers, delivery companies, and police. Unfortunately, little is known about porch piracy. There are no known police departments that track the crime, and industry officials have not released data on theft-related shrink in the last-mile of delivery logistics. With limited information, package theft victims and even some police departments have taken to news outlets and social media to post home security footage of porch pirates stealing packages.

Method of Study

To address this growing trend, this author along with Professor Amy Stickle and two criminal justice students, Melody Hicks and Zachary Hutchinson, at Middle Tennessee State University, embarked on a journey to examine package theft and identify prevention methods. We began by selecting 67 videos of porch pirates in action that had been posted to YouTube during the Spring of 2018. Next, we analyzed the videos for details about the porch pirates, the packages, the environment, and the methods used to complete the thefts. The goal was not only to understand how packages are stolen but also to identify methods that can be used to interrupt the crime.

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Package Analysis. Most thefts (61%) occurred within 25 feet of the roadway, and no packages were stolen from homes more than 51 feet from the roadway. Most frequently, a single package was taken, but stealing multiple packages was not uncommon. The most common size of a package stolen was around 12 to 36 inches square (48%) and contained some brand name or symbol on the box (46%). Nearly universally (93%), the packages were visible from the street.

TAKEAWAY—Packages closest to the road, visible from the street, with branding, and of a larger size, are stolen more frequently.

Approaching the Home. As package thieves approached the homes, fences, cameras, and vehicles parked in the driveway did not appear to impact criminal behavior. In fact, in very few cases (12%), an offender appeared to “case” the area before the theft, and in most cases (72%), the thief walked up to the home in what could be described as a leisurely manner. Few (7%) made any attempt to disguise themselves, and several brought what may have been a fake manifest or empty package to use as a possible ruse if interrupted.

TAKEAWAY—Most thieves casually approached a home with no disguise and did not appear dissuaded by cameras, fences, or signs a resident was at home.

The Theft. All thefts in the study occurred during daylight hours. Furthermore, in nearly all cases (96%), a single porch pirate approached the home and took the item. However, in 37 percent of cases, there was an accomplice who was usually (80%) the getaway driver who remained in the vehicle. It was uncommon for the thief to make an effort to see if anyone was at home once they approached the porch and most thefts took only seconds to complete.

TAKEAWAY—The theft of a package takes only seconds and is usually carried out by a single individual, but accomplices who frequently serve as drivers and lookouts are may be involved.

Leaving the Home. After taking a package, most thieves used a vehicle to flee the scene. In half of the cases, the vehicle was left parked on the street, and in 10 percent of cases, the thieves pulled into the victim’s driveway. Regardless of where the vehicle was parked, over half (54%) left a door or trunk open to facilitate a quick escape. Further, package thieves tended to leave the property hurriedly.

TAKEAWAY—Vehicles were commonly used to facilitate the thefts, and offenders tended to run or walk quickly after taking the package.

Prevention Proposals

Based on the results of our study identified above, and other factors discussed in the full report, we make the following proposals for reducing unattended package theft at residences.

Conceal Packages. This can be accomplished in many ways, such as shipping in smaller packages, remove branding from packages, and placing packages inside a container or behind an item that blocks the view from the roadway.

Remove Targets. Adjust residential delivery hours to coincide when more people are home, notify consumers when a package is left unattended (via electronic message or knocking), delivery directly inside a home or vehicle trunk. Alternatively, delivery to a nearby store, single-point delivery, USPS box, and other efforts to remove the target altogether.

Increase the Effort. Place packages inside a lockable container on the property, secure within a locking bag, and other techniques that increase the effort thieves must put forth to accomplish the theft.

Increase the Risk. Watchful neighbors and actively monitored surveillance may increase the concern of capture by the thief. Alarms, if packages are removed, may also be helpful.

Final Thoughts

The opportunity to commit a crime and skills needed by the offender are two crucial factors when considering how to prevent any crime. Unfortunately, porch piracy requires almost no skill on the part of the thief, and opportunities are rapidly increasing as more and more packages are being left on front porches. Coupled with increased media attention, these two factors are likely to lead to a significant rise in package theft. These factors (opportunity and low required skill) also mean it is likely that police can do little to prevent this crime. Instead, consumers, security experts, retailers, and delivery organizations must respond and develop practices that reduce opportunities by concealing packages, increasing risks, removing targets, and increasing efforts.

The full study and results of Porch Pirates: Examining Unattended Package Theft Through Crime Script Analysis is available through Criminal Justice Studies: A Critical Journal of Crime, Law, and Society.

About the Author

Ben Stickle
Ben Stickle

Benjamin Stickle is an associate professor at Middle Tennessee State University where he teaches courses on policing, investigations, and qualitative research methods. He began his teaching career at Campbellsville University in Kentucky before joining the MTSU faculty in the Department of Criminal Justice Administration in 2016, He also serves as the coordinator of the online undergraduate criminal justice program and as the chair of the curriculum committee. In addition to his academic career, Dr. Stickle has over twenty years’ experience in the criminal justice field, including service as a Sheriff’s Deputy, Advanced Police Officer, and Advanced Crime Scene Processor. He can be reached at ben.stickle@mtsu.edu. For more information, visit www.benstickle.com.

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