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Porch piracy enters Capitol Hill’s crosshairs

Bill would make thefts of non-Postal Service deliveries a felony

The incidence of package theft from private property — known in the delivery trade as “porch piracy” — has been on the rise with the rapid proliferation of online shopping. But there are different ways to skin the porch piracy cat. One of those has come from Capitol Hill.

In mid-May, U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., introduced legislation to punish the theft of packages delivered by private-sector companies in the same way a thief would be hit for stealing parcels delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. The legislation would give prosecutors broad jurisdiction to determine the types of incidents that warrant felony charges.

The Porch Piracy Act, which as of early August had 70 legislative co-sponsors, is designed to bring uniformity to the punishment meted out to so-called porch pirates. Under federal law, stealing a package delivered by the Postal Service is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

By contrast, the theft of packages dropped off by pure-play private-sector companies is not a federal offense. Until recently, states could only levy misdemeanor charges that carry significantly lower penalties.

Not surprisingly, thieves focus more of their attention on private-sector deliveries. According to 2022 data published on SafeWise, a website that reviews various security products and services, 54% of porch piracy incidents in 2021 involved packages delivered by Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN). FedEx Corp. (NYSE: FDX) was next with 15.5% of the incidents reported. About 11% of the incidents involved parcels delivered by the Postal Service, with 8.9% involving UPS Inc. (NYSE: UPS) deliveries.

Amazon did not respond to requests for comment. FedEx Ground, which is responsible for residential deliveries in the U.S., said in a statement that it applauds efforts to “establish a consistent set of penalties for theft of packages nationwide.”

States getting tougher

It’s far from a majority, but some states are getting tough on porch pirates. Eight states have passed laws in the past three years elevating all porch theft from a misdemeanor to a felony, according to data from The Guardian and Type Investigations. Five more, including California and New York, have introduced similar legislation, according to the data.

A law in New Jersey signed earlier this year allows prosecutors to seek fines against porch pirates of up to $15,000 or three to five years in prison. In Kentucky, a bill signed into law in June makes porch piracy a class D felony punishable by one to five years in prison.

A 2021 law in Georgia makes porch piracy a potential felony if an individual steals three or more packages from three or more addresses. However, the law gives judges discretion to reduce those charges to misdemeanors. In late 2020, Texas enacted laws subjecting porch pirates to different tiers of felony charges depending on the number and value of items stolen.

A legislative crackdown is likely to add heft to what has become a holistic effort by manufacturers, retailers and carriers to make the crime not worth the punishment. 

Much of the effort focuses on eliminating the ease of theft, said Scott Cornell, transportation lead and crime and theft specialist at the Travelers Cos., the insurance giant (NYSE: TRV).

“Theft is usually the path of least resistance,” Cornell said. “Thieves don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort to steal a package.”

Commonsense prevention options include asking a neighbor to watch for or accept a package, ensuring a home security camera is positioned properly to capture a thief in the act, and in general being aware of the surroundings that could trigger an attempted theft, Cornell said. Delivery companies also allow customers to redirect a package from a doorstep to a retail location where it can be safely held for pickup.

For those who receive a lot of packages or who might be subject to repeated thefts, a company like DeliverySafe makes porch lockers that are placed on the owner’s property. Drivers need a special code to access the locker, and some models come with special temperature-controlled compartments to securely store perishable items. The company sells direct and through Amazon. 

Another way to minimize theft is for carriers to instruct their drivers to place a parcel containing a lithium-ion battery facedown so a sticker affixed to the front of the package is not readily visible to a prospective thief. Ben Stickle, a criminal justice professor at Middle Tennessee State University, a former police officer and one of the leading academics in the porch piracy field, said the sticker calls attention to the high-value item inside the package. Placing such parcels faceup provides thieves, who otherwise would have no idea of the package’s contents, an unnecessary advantage, Stickle said.

Is the data reliable?

Published data purportedly quantifies the extent of porch piracy. In a SafeWise survey of 1,000 Americans, 64.1% said they were package theft victims in 2021. More than 53% said they had multiple packages stolen during that time. 

Stickle said, however, that package theft survey data is flawed because it is based on victims’ recollections. A consumer may have ordered such a large volume of packages that they may not remember if one or more was delivered, and they would automatically say it was stolen, he said.

Data integrity is also compromised by the retailer being unsure as to whether a package that was reported to be not delivered was stolen from a porch or was actually lost or misrouted in transit, Stickle said. States also lack the wherewithal to provide robust data sets on porch piracy.

“There are no good mechanisms today to discern how anything got lost,” Stickle said. Even Amazon with its deep and sophisticated analytics skills struggles with managing the problems, he said.

Porch thefts, like all types of cargo thefts, are underreported. Retailers don’t want to call attention to the issue and are fine with shipping a replacement item. Consumers, in turn, generally do not file police reports, finding an offer to replace the missing item an acceptable solution.

A collection of 67 porch piracy videos analyzed in 2019 by Stickle and his associates — the videos can be found on YouTube — found that, as expected, some porch thefts were pulled off by random juveniles riding their bicycles. However, others were more organized, with groups of thieves tracking consignments as they reach their destinations and are placed on porches, Stickle said.

As for what motivates porch pirates, Stickle surmised that “pure adrenaline” is behind many of the cases.

Porch piracy isn’t going away. It is a low-skill endeavor, and more online shopping means more deliveries, and more incidents. However, shippers, retailers and carriers are engaged in a holistic effort to take on the problem, underscoring the urgency in curbing a practice that is more common than anyone knows, bleeds out billions of dollars and fosters ill will with the consumer.

Stickle recalls that when big-box retailing became mainstream, there was little attention paid to loss prevention despite the ease with which goods could be pilfered from a cavernous facility. It wasn’t until retailers began to notice the surprisingly substantial cost of theft that they began taking concrete steps to address the problem. A similar trend, he said, is likely to evolve with porch piracy.

The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes FedEx (No. 1) and UPS (No. 2).

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Mark Solomon

Formerly the Executive Editor at DC Velocity, Mark Solomon joined FreightWaves as Managing Editor of Freight Markets. Solomon began his journalistic career in 1982 at Traffic World magazine, ran his own public relations firm (Media Based Solutions) from 1994 to 2008, and has been at DC Velocity since then. Over the course of his career, Solomon has covered nearly the whole gamut of the transportation and logistics industry, including trucking, railroads, maritime, 3PLs, and regulatory issues. Solomon witnessed and narrated the rise of Amazon and XPO Logistics and the shift of the U.S. Postal Service from a mail-focused service to parcel, as well as the exponential, e-commerce-driven growth of warehouse square footage and omnichannel fulfillment.