Plundered treasure isn’t the only thing pirates are after these days – they also want your packages.
And the source of their loot is your front porch.
So-called porch pirates sail around neighborhoods purloining unattended parcels from online shoppers and those waiting for a gift from grandma.
There are no statistics on the prevalence of porch piracy, but who hasn’t rushed home in a panic to pick up the iPhone, the Louis Vuitton purse or the nifty novel ordered online?
And, mail and law enforcement officials say, parcel theft is more common now, in an era when online shopping is ingrained.
“Our customers must take the opportunity away from thieves,” said Stacia Crane, a spokeswoman for the United States Postal Inspection Service, the oldest law enforcement agency in the country.
“Just as you wouldn’t leave a $5 bill in plain sight on the front seat of your car, you shouldn’t leave your mail and parcels unattended.”
The modus operandi of parcel thieves is far from haphazard. They stake out neighborhoods, learn carriers’ routines and study whether residents look out for one another.
“They do their homework,” said Lt. Mark Stichter of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. “It happens in every single neighborhood, from extremely wealthy to lower socioeconomic.”
And unless they’re caught in the act, arresting porch pirates often takes luck.
“It’s a crime of opportunity,” Stichter said. “There’s always the off-chance an officer will do a search of a car and come up with stolen packages. But it’s a very difficult crime to catch.”
Common steps can prevent parcel theft, mail officials say, such as installing a camera on your porch, tracking packages so you know when they will arrive and sending shipments to your workplace.
Renee Edwards of Seal Beach fell victim to a porch pirate.
In August, she ordered something from Amazon for one of her children. When she got home, she saw the packing paper torn open on her porch – and the item gone.
It was frustrating, Edwards said, but probably more so for the pirate. The thief stole a textbook that Edwards paid $1 for, and Amazon sent her a new copy the next day.
“I’m more concerned for those who have had items that aren’t as easily replaced, like phones or prescriptions,” she said.
Law enforcement agencies and mail carriers take steps to protect packages.
U.S. Postal Inspection Service agents, authorized to carry firearms, go into the field in plain clothes. They walk around neighborhoods or drive behind carriers to make sure no one is casing a truck or house.
The Inspection Service does not discuss its investigation methods, but Crane said undercover agents will flood hot spots, most recently in Long Beach.
It’s rare for agents to stumble upon a theft in progress, Crane said. But when they do, they make arrests.
“Southern California is a hotbed for parcel theft,” she said. “We want to keep our carriers safe and our customers’ packages safe.”
The U.S. Postal Service and private delivery services such as UPS and FedEx have created online tools for customers to know when packages arrive.
For example, the Postal Service allows customers to register their address and receive a call any time a package – expected or not – arrives on their doorstep.
UPS recently created a more human-based program: UPS Access Point.
The delivery company partners with local businesses, such as a dry cleaner or an insurance company, that receive packages when recipients aren’t home.
Carriers will leave notes on residents’ doors telling them where to pick up the packages; ID and the note are required to get the goods.
“The access points are within 2 miles of a customer’s house,” said Natalie Godwin, a UPS spokeswoman. “And we update the access points (online) when businesses sign up or drop out.”
Southern California has about 700 such access points.
“At least I know my package is here and safe,” said Howard Nguyen, a Westminster resident who strolled into Saigon Photo Lab, an access point across the street from his apartment.
The portrait studio is tucked into a nondescript strip mall on Westminster Avenue, surrounded by pho restaurants and a liquor store.
Martin Hua and his wife, Christina Nguyen, have owned Saigon Photo Lab for 22 years. The shop became an access point several weeks ago, he said, so that more people would come in.
“I only get 25 cents a package, so it’s not for the money,” he said. “It seems to help the business. People have come in and looked around and said, ‘Oh, you do portraits here.’”
Richard Maher, a spokesman for the Postal Service, said employing preventive strategies such as the UPS Access Point is key to adapting to porch pirates.
“We all have to be alert,” he said. “Especially this time of year.
This article was originally written by Chris Haire and appeared in the Orange County Register on December 14, 2016.
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SecurityBase also suggests getting a motion activated surveillance system or video doorbell for your home to help identify thieves.