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The Growing Trends in Home Delivery is Fueling Package Theft

By Ben Stickle, Ph.D, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Middle Tennessee State University

Online retail sales have been growing steadily for years. However, this trend has increased at an incredibly rapid rate during the COVID-19 crisis. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, as of 2020, online sales account for roughly 14% of the total sales volume in the United States, up from 11% in 2019[1]. Furthermore, this trend is expected to increase as 2021 projected U.S. online retail sales amount to approximately 5 trillion dollars, doubling in value since 2017[2]. This growth is expected to continue primarily due to the change in lifestyle due to COVID-19 and as more consumers purchase an ever-increasing variety of goods and have them delivered to their homes. While consumers find the ability to browse products online and have them delivered to their homes convenient, so do thieves. Without any skill and very little risk package thieves—commonly known as porch pirates—can swipe your packages from the doorstep before you can retrieve consumers.

What is Known about Package Theft

Package theft commonly referred to as ‘Porch Piracy,’ is an emerging form of crime impacting millions of people that only recently was defined.

“Taking possession of a package or its contents, outside of a residence or business, where it has been commercially delivered or has been left for commercial pick-up, with intent to deprive the rightful owner of the contents” (Hicks, Stickle & Harms, 2020).

Unfortunately, very little is known about package theft. Thus far, there have been only a handful of consumer-directed surveys and two scholarly articles addressing the problem. With a team of researchers,I lead the first academic study[3] on the topic by using videos of the theft posted online to evaluate thieves’ techniques and methods to seal packages. We found that thefts typically transpired close to roadways, with packages being visible from the street. Most packages that were stolen were of medium size and had brand names on the boxes. Moreover, in virtually every incident, a single individual approached the home and took the packages. In a third of cases, an accomplice was involved who usually served as a getaway driver. Finally, the thefts were very quick, usually around 30 seconds to complete.

In a follow-up study[4] (before COVID), we conducted a survey of consumers to evaluate the rate of package theft and consumer fear of the event. The survey of 562 respondents in 49 states revealed that nearly one quarter (23.8%) had been a victim of package theft. If found to be representative, extrapolating from that figure would make package theft one of the most common crimes in the U.S.

While 24%may seem high; other studies have found even higher rates. A 2020 survey of 2,000 online consumers by the market research company C+R found a rate of 36%. A study by Value Penguin found that 43% of survey respondents had been victims of porch piracy. And yet another study estimated that over 35 million Americans were the victims of the crime in 2020, resulting in approximately 5.4 billion dollars in financial losses.

How has the Pandemic Impacted Package Theft

Some early studies (Stickle & Felson, 2020) indicate that many types of crime have decreased during the pandemic. However, that does not appear to hold true for package theft; as a recent U.S. survey involving 1,000 respondents found that nearly one in five experienced the theft of an item ordered for delivery since March of 2020 when the onset of coronavirus forced most Americans to stay at home. This represents a significant increase in package theft from before the COVID crisis.

These trends will likely increase for several reasons[5]. First, staying home more will contribute to a substantial increase in home deliveries of a wide assortment of products, which will result in more opportunities for theft. Second, while there is an increase in persons at home, this may not necessarily result in quickly removing packages. For example, the routine of collecting packages when returning home from school or work may be altered. With the daily routine interrupted packages may be left unattended for more extended periods or forgotten altogether.

What can be done about Theft

There are things that individuals can do to help protect themselves from being a victim. Some delivery services provide opportunities for delivery directly inside a consumer’s home, garage, or even the trunk of their vehicle. However, research indicates that many people may not be comfortable allowing delivery access to their homes[6].

Another popular option is doorbell cameras. However, they provide no protection or prevention, do not remove the package from the view of porch pirates, and according to one study[7], their presence did not appear to have an impact on theft.

Since the opportunity for theft is a crucial factor, options such as having packages delivered to a neighbor, scheduling delivery to a date and time when you are home, and using Post Office Boxes or Parcel Delivery Lockers are also viable options. However, many times these efforts are inconvenient for the consumer.

In addition to consumer convince, three critical aspects of theft prevention should be considered when considering prevention products or methods; deterrence, security, and concealability. Deterrence is anything that discourages theft; security refers to physical efforts that prevent a package from being removed, and concealing a package removes the opportunity for a thief to target the item.

The best method to reduce thefts incorporates all three aspects; deterrence, concealability, and security while maintaining convenience for the consumer. The only product that meets the three criteria for maximum protection and is convenient for consumers is a lockable delivery container installed at a residence. These items provide the best level of protection for all circumstances and address many of the other potential losses in the ‘last foot’[8]. Currently, DeliverySafe is the leader in this market.

Conclusion

With the increase in home delivery of consumer goods and the ease of package theft, it appears porch piracy is here to stay until consumers, retailers, and delivery services work to reduce thefts. The best way to do that is to remove the opportunity for theft while maintaining home delivery convenience. This will be a difficult task and requires society to re-think the front porch. Just as coal shoots, milk delivery boxes, and newspaper boxes have come and gone as features common for residential structures, package receptacles may be coming to a porch near you as an essential feature in the battle against porch pirates.

About the Author:

Ben Stickle is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Middle Tennessee State University. He is a recognized expert and industry forerunner addressing loss in the last mile of delivery—including what he has termed ‘The Last Foot,’ focusing on package theft.

His work includes scholarly articles on COVID-19’s impact on crime, package theft, and practitioner-focused articles in The Mail & Express Review, Loss Prevention Magazine, and The Business Insider. Ben’s research has appeared in nearly 100 news reports, websites, and blogs, including Parcel & Post Technology, U.S. News & World Report, The Postal Hub, Good Morning America, New York Times, BNC Investigative Reporting, and others. Ben has presented about package theft to the Loss Prevention Research Council, Post & Parcel Live, Clear Link Consumer Brands, ASIS International, Criminology Consortium, and others.

For more information visit: www.benstickle.com/package-theft

[1]U.S. Census Bureau News: Quarterly Retail E-Commerce Sales

[2]Retail E-Commerce Sales Worldwide from 2014-2024

[3]Porch Pirates: Examining Unattended Package Theft through Crime Script Analysis

[4]Assessing the Fear of Package Theft

[5]Package Theft in a Pandemic

[6]Assessing the Fear of Package Theft

[7]Porch Pirates: Examining Unattended Package Theft through Crime Script Analysis

[8]The Last Foot of the Supply Chain is Presenting New Challenges

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