Keeping gifts safe; Here’s how to keep packages safe in an age of ‘porch pirates’

Published 9:49 am Monday, December 5, 2016

By Martin Moylan FM

ST PAUL — Kathryn Short had a delivery from Amazon go missing recently from outside her home. The same thing happened to her neighbor. So Short decided it was time to play some defense.

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She and her husband paid about $200 for a spy doorbell designed to alert them “when there’s any sort of activity in front of your door. We’re going to install that,” she said, and “be more watchful of who’s coming to our front door.”

The St. Paul woman is also thinking about directing more deliveries to her workplace, where she knows they’ll be safe. It’s one more possible option to fight what authorities say is an increasingly troublesome crime during the holiday season.

With more consumers shopping online and then getting their orders delivered home — UPS alone will deliver more than 700 million packages to homes and businesses between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve — there’s more opportunity for so-called “porch pirates” to simply snatch packages left outside the house.

“We are seeing lots more reports of this type of activity in the city,” said St. Paul police spokesperson Mike Ernster. “Thieves have been stealing packages off doorways, even not knowing what’s in the package, just for the idea that they may get something of value out of it.”

Homeowners can take several defensive measures, not only re-routing a delivery to work, but to a neighbor who is at home or another destination, Ernster said, adding that theft victims should always file a police report, because the cops caught some of last year’s crooks.

“Last year, we had some success with catching some people stealing packages,” he said. “They were witnessed by a neighbor. Some of these thefts are perpetuated by the same people. So, if you can make an arrest in one of these, you could stop a significant number of these thefts.”

Retailers, delivery companies and tech firms are also trying to help consumers fight back. Innovations include large lockboxes for sale that can be bolted to a porch floor and a device that sets off a loud alarm if an unauthorized person removes a package.

It helps if the police have a photo or video of a crook caught in the act. That’s what “video doorbells” like the one Kathryn Short bought, can provide.

“When somebody steps onto your porch, it automatically starts recording,” said Pedro Melendez, a connected home designer with Best Buy. “Your phone will buzz. Open the app and you can see what’s happening.”

Melendez says combining a video camera with remotely controlled locks would allow someone trusted to move a package inside.

The U.S. Postal Service and UPS offer services that allow customers to track and control the delivery of packages.

Some 30 million people have signed up for the UPS MyChoice service where homeowners can communicate where they want parcels left on their own property, said company spokesperson Matt O’Connor.

“You set delivery instructions for your driver to put it behind a certain bush in your front yard or by a side door or back door,” he said, adding that customers can also direct deliveries to nearby businesses for safekeeping. For a fee, customers can even specify time periods for delivery.

Amazon is trying to thwart thieves, too. The mighty online retailer lets customers ship orders to secure lockers deployed within retail stores, including about 40 in the Twin Cities.

“When the package arrives at the locker, you get an email and text notification, and then you enter in a code. And the locker opens up for you,” said Amazon spokesperson Jim Billimoria. “Your package is right there. It’s real easy.”