Nova Scotia·Q&A

Thwart porch pirates with better concealment tactics, crime expert advises

An expert on package theft says there are some things that can be done to reduce porch piracy.

Thieves are rampant in the lead up to Christmas, say police

Amazon packages left on a porch.
Nova Scotia RCMP say package thefts increase during the holiday season. (Travis Dolynny/CBC)

With online shopping on the increase during the holiday season, Nova Scotia RCMP have issued a news release warning people to take precautions to avoid falling victim to porch pirates who snatch packages  delivered to homes.

The release suggests scheduling deliveries for times when the recipient is home, arranging for a secure pick-up location and requesting a signature for delivery, among other things.

Ben Stickle, a professor of criminal justice at Middle Tennessee State University studies package theft and spoke to CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia about the phenomenon and what can be done to reduce it.

Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

The more we're getting delivered, the more thieves are stealing those packages. We find out why porch piracy is an underreported and growing kind of crime from Ben Stickle, a professor of criminal justice at Middle Tennessee State University who studies package theft.

How much is this kind of theft growing?

It seems to be growing quite a bit.

We don't have great numbers or statistics on this, but from interviews that have been done and other sources, this seems to be an increasing crime as we have more packages that are delivered to your home, especially this time of year.

The data you track is American, but safe to assume, if more people are shopping online here in Canada, too, this kind of theft might be growing here as well.

The data that we do have is American-based, but the trends are probably very similar in Canada. As home delivery —  and then the value of what's in those packages — increases, we expect to see an increase in the crime in most places.

Ben Stickle is an associate professor in the criminal justice faculty at Middle Tennessee State University.
Ben Stickle is a professor in the criminal justice faculty at Middle Tennessee State University. (Middle Tennessee State University)

Is it mainly thieves taking stuff where it's dropped off at our homes or are packages going missing elsewhere, too?

Certainly we have porch pirates who are operating at an individual's home and taking packages that are left there for delivery. But we also are starting to see thieves who are getting a little more organized.

They're following delivery drivers and taking packages out of their truck or in some cases the entire truck and even moving further up and looking at some cargo theft for some trains.

All along the delivery route we see thieves operating to try and steal them.

Does it tell you that maybe this is becoming big business, maybe it's becoming more organized?

It's actually becoming more organized. And I think again, you're looking at just the opportunity, the ease [of committing] these types of theft.

Oftentimes there's not a lot of skill that's involved compared to trying to walk into a store [to] conceal something and take it in the traditional sense. This does seem to be easier and perhaps even more lucrative.

What is the profile of how these thieves operate?

My initial study, where we looked at porch pirates who are just stealing from a home, there was often more than one person involved.

Usually the second person was a driver of another vehicle or something like that.

It usually just takes one person. They happen to be walking or driving by, see a package on your front porch. They just basically walk up, take it and walk away. It's about as simple as that and seems to be the trend and technique that's being used today.

And this is usually happening in daylight,  they can see the package there. Is there anything else that might make them pick your house or your package?

It seems to be occurring in places that they can see. If the house is closer to the roadway and you're able to see a package that's clearly under your front porch, that certainly increases your risk.

And it could be that certain types of packages are attractive to thieves.

For example, if you're receiving a shipment of something that has a lithium ion battery in it, there's stickers that are required by law to be posted on the outside of that box.

It's almost like a blinking sign to a thief that says come take me, I'm probably valuable. So there are certain things about packages that we think are attracting thieves.

Shoes seemed to be a big magnet.

There seems to be certain products that are more likely to be stolen than others, and that's kind of an industry mystery. 

We're trying to figure out how exactly it is that thieves would know which boxes or which shipping containers have some of these valuable items. Even when the box doesn't have a brand on it or the type of packaging has been changed, thieves still seem to be able to find these things.

There's definitely some inside information that's leaking out into the public and allowing people to steal and target certain items.

RCMP here in Nova Scotia advising several things, you know, scheduling delivery times when you're at home, requesting a signature, maybe installing security cameras. Do the security cameras actually deter porch thieves?

It doesn't seem from my research that they actually deter much package theft.

In fact, the first study I did, we looked at videos of porch pirates and multiple people would see the camera, look at it,  look at the box, and they take it anyway.

A lot of that has to do with the fact that the thief is already committed by the time they approach your front porch to take your package. The camera probably isn't going to deter them. So I don't know that's going to be very helpful.

What are some more helpful things that do seem to work?

Some of the things they suggested are certainly accurate. Ultimately, removing the product from visibility is the best.

If you can take it from your front porch immediately and take it inside. If you can have it delivered to someone who is home, if you have a porch locker system that can receive a package, or you can even just hide it behind something on your porch.

Visibility really is the key. If the thief doesn't see it from the roadway, it's very unlikely they're going up to every single house to look for a package.

You say it's time to rethink the front porch. Why?

We've designed houses and homes for a long time to address the needs that we have. 

Home delivery of packages isn't going to change likely anytime soon and for the foreseeable future.

Thinking about how we can securely receive a package into our house really needs to be something that we start designing homes and apartments and other buildings to try and accommodate.

We've done that in the past to accommodate how we live. This is the future, and we need to start thinking about how the front porch works.


With files from Information Morning Nova Scotia