The joy of opening a well-wrapped box is difficult to beat. For many, the feeling dredges up a childhood memory from when they couldn’t tell what the box contained, but they knew they’d love it all the same.
That magic is somewhat faded now. With Amazon so close, plain brown boxes are mere hours away and the contents are known well before it’s wrapped in branded packing tape. And now as packages are delivered more often, they disappear more often, without a trace.
Police call them “porch pirates,” and they’re responsible for many of the vanishing packages throughout the Eastside and the country as a whole. Some porch pirates stalk through neighborhoods, searching for unattended homes ripe for plunder, while others go as far as following UPS trucks, plucking packages from porches seconds after they arrive.
“I’m positive that this is occurring several times a day and we get very few reports,” said Tay Jones, detective for the Redmond Police Department. “In today’s day and age, a lot of things are moving to the convenient purchase online, and the delivery driver drops it off on your porch, no signature required and drive away.”
It’s a quick and easy profit for most thieves. When police catch a porch pirate, they may discover dozens of stolen gifts in the thief’s trove after only a single day of looting.
“To me it’s kind of the same thing as people prowling cars — it’s a crime of opportunity,” said Detective Jason Weiss with the Snoqualmie Police Department. “Eventually when we end up catching people in a car or on foot, we’ll end up with a lot of property that we don’t know who it belongs to, so it’s important to let us know what’s missing.”
Washingtonians are significantly more likely than Americans as a whole to have had a package stolen or know someone who has.
According to a Wakerfield Research survey commissioned by Comcast, 56 percent of surveyed Washingtonians know someone who has had a package stolen and 28 percent have experienced package theft themselves. The national averages are 44 percent and 23 percent respectively, according to the same survey.
While package theft has likely risen over the years as online marketplaces become prominent, the numbers aren’t reflected in police reports. Several Eastside police departments agree that’s because package thefts are vastly underreported.
“I would venture to guess that [the statistics] are heavily skewed,” Jones said. “It does not get reported as much as it occurs. That, I can almost guarantee.”
Police records don’t differentiate between package or mail theft and any other property theft, so it’s difficult to accurately quantify how the problem has grown over the past few decades. But several departments don’t doubt the problem is worse than the numbers would reflect.
Many locals feel it’s not a crime worth reporting, police said, and they think they’re burdening police or that there’s no chance to catch the porch pirate even if they do report the crime.
Police argue that reporting the crimes is more important than many people think, even if they can’t catch the crook. Police allocate time and resources to issues based on how prominent the problem is and without accurate statistics, they can’t address a problem appropriately.
“It’s something that’s difficult to go proactively about,” Jones said. “If someone calls, we will investigate… 100 percent call no matter what. Because if we can’t quantify the problem, it’s going to be hard to actually allocate the resources that are needed if we don’t know they’re needed.”
Reports also help connect a caught porch pirate to more crimes. The more crimes a criminal is accused of, the easier it is for prosecutors to follow through on the case.
“Some of the prosecution stuff is heavily driven off of dollar amount lost,” Jones added. “So if you can build a bigger picture… that in and of itself is huge, just that reporting and being able to link incidences not only for the analytic side, but the prosecutorial side at the end to build the bigger case. If nobody calls in, it’s hard to actually build those cases on people.”
Police have been encouraging locals to report all crime and some have made it easier with the use of online crime reporting. Many locals may not want to go through the process of filing a police report for petty theft, but they can quickly report the crime online.
“You don’t even have to talk to a cop — you can do it all online and we’ll follow up on that,” said Jeff Borsheim, a detective with the Bellevue Police Department.
Police believe another reason porch pirates go underreported is the ease at which consumers can replace the stolen goods. Many online merchants have policies that favor the consumer when packages go missing, police say, and consumers won’t feel the need to report the crime if they’ve already been refunded in full.
“A lot of the online merchants just basically you say it was stolen and they’ll just ship you a new one,” Borsheim said. “They might feel like [the crime] is not a big deal, especially when they may not be out any financial loss.”
According to an Amazon spokesperson, a vast majority of deliveries make it to consumers without issue and if the package is lost or stolen, they work with customers directly to make it right. They did not comment on whether or not package theft is on the rise.
“If you spoke to a lot of people who are selling online, I would be willing to bet that they would say, ‘Yes, we are getting an increased number [of package thefts] as time goes on,’” Jones said.
Police, retailers and postal services all agree on the various ways consumers can prevent porch piracy.
Police recommend building good relationships with neighbors who can watch out for suspicious vehicles or collect a package while someone isn’t home.
“Know your neighbors, help each other out,” Jones said. “Building those relationships in the community is really big… This isn’t always as common in this day and age, but the more people you have watching each other’s back is really good.”
Additionally, police see an increase in high-quality, inexpensive surveillance systems for home owners. Those systems make detectives’ jobs easier if the thief is caught on a high definition camera and the victim reports the crime.
Police added that locals can provide special instructions for mail carriers to leave packages out of sight, they can invest in a lock box for packages, request mail carriers to require a signature for drop off, or even pick up the package directly from the post office or other store.
Amazon is working to offer more ways to keep packages safe, including Amazon Lockers — secure pick-up and drop-off spots located near offices, stores and apartments. According to an Amazon spokesperson, the locker is a good alternative for consumers who don’t want their package left on a doorstep.
FedEx is expanding a similar service that allows consumers to pick up their packages from thousands of locations that are more secure than the average porch. According to a press release, the company is working to grow its network and already has thousands of hold locations within five miles of most consumers, including many Walgreens, Albertsons, Kroger grocery stores and Rite Aid locations.
“Package theft continues to be a real concern for consumers and retailers alike,” said Randy Scarborough, FedEx vice president of retail marketing in a press release. “They want convenient and secure options for package delivery. To fulfill that need, FedEx has developed strategic alliances with major retailers that millions of Americans already visit as part of their normal, everyday routine. The neighborhood grocery store or pharmacy is a good alternative to the home.”
Amazon is also rolling out a relatively new service called Amazon Key, which gives an authorized delivery driver one-time access to a home, allowing the driver to deposit the package just inside the front door.
The overall goal, according to police, is to minimize the opportunity and push the pirates to look elsewhere. If each city does its part, then eventually criminals will have little to no opportunities, making the crime not worth the time.
“The biggest thing is not giving the opportunity,” Weiss said. “It’s a problem we deal with all year long, but it’s worse during November and December obviously — it’s usually a crime of opportunity.”