When you order online, do you worry that a thief might steal the package once it’s delivered to your house? If so, you’re not alone.

In a recent survey by ChamberOfCommerce.org, nearly half (49 percent) of online shoppers said they were concerned about porch pirates. Almost one in three (31 percent) said they didn’t buy expensive items online to avoid package theft.

Listen to audio highlights of the story below:

The growth in online shopping since the pandemic—more deliveries and more high-value merchandise being purchased this way—has spawned a surge in package thefts that impact millions of Americans each year.

“It’s one of the most common crimes we have in the country today,” said Ben Stickle, a professor of criminal justice administration at Middle Tennessee State University and an expert on package theft. “If you're going to be a victim of a crime this year, most likely you'll be a victim of having someone steal your package.”

It’s hard to quantify the problem. There aren’t national statistics on the number of packages stolen or the value of the merchandise taken. Most victims don’t report these crimes to the police—they contact the retailer or shipping company. Even when they file a police report, most departments don’t have a separate category for package thefts.

Most of the information about this crime spree is based on consumer surveys. According to the ChamberOfCommerce.org survey:

  • More than a quarter (26 percent) of the respondents said they’d been the victim of porch pirates.
  • Most of the incidents occurred at single-family homes (49 percent) rather than apartments or condominiums (42 percent).
  • Deliveries to suburban and urban areas are most likely to be snatched.
  • The average value of the stolen merchandise was almost $82.

A Low-Risk, Little-Effort Crime

Porch pirates are opportunists: When they see packages sitting on the doorstep or at the entrance to an apartment complex or condominium, they grab them. Stickle calls it a “low-effort, low-risk” crime.

“It takes almost no skill to steal a package, and there’s very little chance of being caught,” he said.

Home security cameras don’t seem to deter most package thieves. Of the porch pirate victims in the Chamber of Commerce study, 22 percent said their home had a doorbell camera. More than one-third (38 percent) said they believe doorbell cameras are no longer an effective deterrent.

When Stickle studied security camera videos of porch pirates in action, he found that only about five percent made any attempt to cover their faces or conceal their identities.

“Many of them would walk up, see a camera, whether it’s a doorbell or otherwise, look at it, take the box, and walk away. They didn’t seem to be dissuaded in the least by a camera,” Stickle told Checkbook.

As these criminals become more brazen, it’s not unusual for them to hit the same location multiple times, according to a survey by the website SafeWise. Four in 10 consumers who had packages stolen in the past year said they were hit by porch pirates more than once.

Ways to Thwart Porch Pirates

The busy holiday shopping season is prime time for porch pirates, but these thieves are on the prowl year-round, so it’s important to be proactive any time you shop online.

“The best way to reduce your risk of being a victim of a porch pirate is to make sure there are no packages there for them to take,” said John Breyault, a vice president at the National Consumers League, which runs the Fraud.org website. Here’s how to do that:

  • Pay attention to delivery alerts: Many online stores send email updates about when your purchases will arrive, so you can be on the lookout for them. Retailers and the major shipping companies also send alerts after they’ve made deliveries. If you aren’t home when you receive the delivery confirmation, see if someone else can secure the package for you.
  • Doorbell cameras can alert you: Many delivery drivers will not ring the doorbell or knock on your door when they drop off packages. A doorbell camera will let you know in real time that you received something, so you can take it inside or contact someone you trust to get it.
  • Use shipping tools: The major parcel delivery services, including the U.S. Postal Service, have online tools and apps that let you reroute your packages to a different address, such as your work address. You can also instruct them to delay delivery or hold your packages for pickup at one of their retail locations. Amazon and some other major retailers let you add instructions to your order about where to leave stuff. There’s no guarantee they will follow your instructions, but it’s probably worth the effort to specify a more secure location than the front door.
  • Use package lockers: Amazon will deliver your package to one of its locker locations (you get to choose where), so you know it’s secure until you can pick it up. Shipping to an Amazon Locker is free for Prime Members. UPS, DHL, and the U.S. Postal Service also offer secure locker services. FedEx will hold your package at one of its retail storefronts.
  • Buy a drop box: If you get a lot of package deliveries, consider buying a lockable drop box. Basic models cost less than $100.
  • Partner with a neighbor: See if you can arrange with a trusted neighbor to watch out for package deliveries at your house, while you do the same for them. That’s what I do, and it works great.

What to do When Porch Pirates Strike

Legally speaking, once that package is delivered to your doorstep, the retailer and the shipping company are no longer responsible for it. If the packages are snatched by a thief, it’s your problem.

Even so, report the theft to the retailer or delivery service. In many cases, it will send a free replacement shipment.

Also, file a police report. Most departments have online forms citizens can use to report minor crimes. Having a police report (or security camera footage of the porch pirates) might help you obtain a free replacement shipment.

If the item stolen was very expensive, and you can’t get satisfaction from the retailer or delivery service, consider filing a claim with your home insurance company. But don’t make small claims; doing so may increase your future premiums dramatically.

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Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He has been protecting consumers for more than 40 years, having covered the consumer beat for CBS News, The Today Show, and NBCNews.com. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.