Revenge may be best served cold, but when a former NASA engineer concocted a device to retaliate against thieves snatching packages off his porch, the video showing the crooks getting doused with tinsel from a glitter bomb and squirted with Fart Spray (yes, that’s a real thing) became hot on YouTube, garnering more than 50 million views in the weeks before Christmas. There’s little mystery why. Thieves dubbed “porch pirates” have become increasingly common in the Age of Amazon, lurking in neighborhoods to steal recently delivered packages off front porches. Millions of Americans have already been victimized, sales of doorbell cameras and other video-surveillance devices are soaring, and local cops are running stings to stem the epidemic. Now, after the post-Christmas rush, some lawmakers are even contemplating new legislation that would single out and harshly punish the doorway bandits, in part because home merchandise delivery now encompasses far more than just gift packages—it also includes essential goods for the elderly and infirm.
Exact figures on porch pirating aren’t available because many people don’t bother reporting it, especially since Amazon and some other online merchants will often refund money for a stolen item. But a survey by packaging company Schorr found that about one-third of respondents claim to have been victimized. Another study estimated that 26 million Americans have had packages stolen. Over the last few years, package pilfering has gone from a crime of opportunity, in which someone who happens to spot an unattended item on a porch on a lonely street grabs it and runs, to an organized activity. Today, thieves trail UPS and FedEx trucks, then snatch up gifts left unattended. One San Antonio case was an inside job: one of the accomplices arrested was a UPS worker. In another shocking case, on Halloween, a Sacramento woman brought her kids along, in costume, as she snatched packages. In some cases, cops, using search warrants, have found dozens of parcels in the homes or vehicles of those apprehended for heists. A report earlier this year by Safewise, a home security system, listed Austin, Salt Lake City, Miami, and Atlanta as cities where residents were most likely to get a package snatched.
The rise of porch piracy is one reason sales of home-monitoring systems are soaring, especially so-called doorbell cameras that film people who approach your home. Invented just six years ago, doorbell cameras are now a $500 million annual business. Online retailers are taking their own steps to fight the problem. Amazon, for instance, now offers a “key” service; customers can have an electronic “key” connected to their doors, and a delivery person can use a one-time code to open the door for a brief period just enough time to drop off the package inside your house before the door locks again. Another contraption does the same thing for your car, opening a door just long enough for the delivery driver to deposit the goods.
As reports of theft grow, local cops have gotten more aggressive about pursuing the bad guys. Police in Jersey City responded to an epidemic of porch pilfering before Christmas that even victimized Mayor Steve Fulop. City cops partnered with Amazon in a sting that involved leaving packages with GPS devices in them unattended on porches in areas where theft had been widespread, allowing police to track down the thieves.
Still, police are making arrests in fewer than 10 percent of package-pilfering cases reported to them. Criminal penalties are hardly a deterrent, either; in most cases, when police nab a thief with a single package, the culprit is simply charged with a misdemeanor and will rarely face jail time, unless it’s an expensive item or cops can tie him to other thefts. But as online buying proliferates, and merchants send increasingly important packages, including prescription drugs, to homes, support should grow for increased penalties for such thefts.
In South Carolina, a tough new proposed law, the Defense Against Porch Pirates Act, would make it a felony to steal packages off a porch, subject to mandatory fines and jail time—without the prospect of probation. Lawmakers probably won’t embrace legislation that deals so harshly and uncompromisingly with a crime which, even though it’s becoming more common and organized, is also the kind of mischief that local teens often engage in. But the popularity of the NASA engineer’s revenge video (even amid reports that portions of it were staged) is a reminder that the growing prevalence of porch piracy leaves many people feeling victimized and angry. Somewhere between mandatory jail time on the one hand, and misdemeanor probation on the other, is a middle ground of tougher punishments—and we’re likely to see them gain traction in the new year.