Philip Gansert and his wife were vacationing in San Francisco after Thanksgiving when an alert on his smartphone notified him that someone was on his front porch back in Seattle.
As he launched a video being relayed by his Ring smart doorbell, Gansert was able to watch as a young man ripped open a package, took out the contents and left the property.
“Bring my package back now!” Gansert can be heard saying on the video, after the thief had already disappeared down more than a dozen steps to the street.
Needless to say, the thief didn’t comply. It was after 7 p.m. and it was over in seconds. Another quick and easy crime during a season in which they have become countless.
As more and more shoppers rely on the convenience of online shopping and home delivery to get their hands on everything from diapers to televisions, criminals are taking advantage. It’s estimated that more than 10 million packages are stolen off doorsteps in the U.S. every year, a seemingly easy crime that law enforcement struggles to keep up with. The problem is only heightened during the holiday season, when gifts are shipped every which way at a much greater frequency.
It only takes a glance at local TV news or YouTube to catch the latest offering from a homeowner who caught an enterprising thief on video. The rise of the neighborhood social network Nextdoor, where reporting criminal mischief is already a staple of the daily back and forth, has added another layer of dialogue and it’s where Gansert first turned to alert his neighbors.
“This guy just took this package off my front porch I can see it on my camera but I’m out of town,” read Gansert’s hurried post, which contained a screen grab from the video.
“I didn’t expect to get the stuff back, but maybe have other people keep an eye on their own stuff,” Gansert said, adding that he was so frazzled in the immediate aftermath of the theft that he didn’t even get his street right in the initial posting.
Throughout November and December, Nextdoor’s assorted neighborhood networks are flooded with messages about package theft. In Ballard, where Gansert lives, users post reports of finding empty boxes in alleyways, put out pleas to be on the lookout for the contents of boxes left behind on porches and direct neighbors to watch for suspicious vehicles driving down streets.
Gansert and his wife moved to Seattle in November 2015 to be closer to their daughter — who works for Amazon — and her family. The Ganserts bought a home in a neighborhood where they could walk to shops and restaurants. Six months of the year, the couple lives in Rehoboth Beach, Del., a beach town where Gansert said people can leave their doors unlocked.
“We were here maybe a month and we got burglarized,” Gansert said about his new home. “We didn’t have a lot here, but they stole a few things. So we beefed the security up. We put motion detectors on the outside, and we put this thing called Ring in.”
Gansert said the package thief who struck while he was out of town only got away with four Pendleton coffee mugs, which were sent as a gift.
“I was really upset at first but, let’s put this in perspective. Nobody got hurt,” Gansert said. “But it is annoying, you feel a bit violated.”
He also finds it hard to believe that anyone would risk going to jail over such an inconsequential item. Pendleton, for their part, replaced the mugs — and Gansert’s wife had to sign for them when they were re-delivered.
Now Gansert, who said he uses Amazon for everything, said he’ll no longer have packages shipped to his house, opting instead to have them delivered to his daughter nearby. He’s going to look into using Amazon Lockers at the nearby 7-Eleven. And on top of the alarm system he already has, he’s going to add a more extensive camera system.
As far as reporting the crime to police, Gansert did do that online, even though he believes nothing will come of it.
“I think it’s important that they have the statistics,” Gansert said. “If people don’t report crimes than we’re not going to get the attention we need. I don’t expect them to do anything, but I’d like it to get in a database that, yeah, something was stolen.”
‘Low risk of getting caught’
Seattle Police Department Det. Scotty Bach is as frustrated as the homeowners whose crimes he investigates for the Major Crimes Task Force.
Bach knows the crimes are happening, he knows it all spikes during the holiday season and he knows that the few thieves who are caught are likely to see little if any jail time.
“It’s an easy job for [thieves] to do with very low risk of getting caught,” Bach said. “The suspects target certain packages. Certain stores have more liberal return policies, so they can get an in-store credit and then they get a gift card and then they sell that gift card to a pawn shop or to an online broker and it’s just easy money for them.”
Bach, who has been with the department for 15 years, said he’s seeing more people installing cameras on their homes if only for the shame factor of putting people on the internet who they catch stealing their packages.
But he does admit that a short-staffed SPD can be aided by video footage.
“Surveillance video is a great option — not that everybody feels they have to have it, and some people feel you’re in a big brother world if you have it,” Bach said. “But if you have the means and can afford a surveillance system, please get it, because it does help us track down these repeat offenders. If we can identify somebody who we think is a package thief, we can follow them around.”
He said homeowners should be also taking other steps if they don’t want their holiday gifts — and packages throughout the rest of the year — to go missing.
“If you order from Amazon or whatever, you get a text message when it’s delivered. If it’s delivered, call your neighbor, have them come out and get it,” said Bach, who has his own packages delivered to the home of his retired parents. “Technology is so good now, within minutes of you knowing a package is there somebody should be going to retrieve that package, I think.”
And if it looks like the same neighborhoods keep getting hit by the same type of crime, Bach confirmed that that’s probably the case.
“I think they go to a certain neighborhood where they expect nicer, more expensive gifts to be delivered and target those neighborhoods,” Bach said. “So if your neighborhood has been hit with package thieves in the past, then the suspects will likely come back to that neighborhood because they believe you’re going to order and do the exact same thing.”
In 2014, the Major Crimes unit busted a prolific North Seattle crime ring, in which police seized hundreds of pieces of stolen property. A report on the SPD Blotter blog said that one of the suspects in the crimes told police that unwrapping stolen packages was “like opening Christmas presents.”
On Tuesday, Bach represented SPD in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” in which he was asked a variety of questions related to the crimes he investigates. One user asked whether the department has ever considered undercover sting operations to catch criminals in the act, like leaving a fake package.
“We do a wide variety of undercover stings,” Bach answered. “We will continue to think outside the box. We track stats for trends/issues we need to address, and are aware this is a busy time of the year for package thieves and car prowls in particular. In addition to the work our unit does, the department also shifts/adds patrols to areas like the Northgate parking lot and downtown shopping areas as a preventative measure.”
Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, public affairs director for the department, said that last week out of its southwest precinct, working with he would only identify as a “major delivery company,” SPD did an operation involving mobile surveillance. As the delivery company was on its routes, officers managed to catch someone for package theft and the suspect was carrying methamphetamine.
“We recovered some packages from the car, some stolen checks and that person is in jail — hopefully they’re still in jail now,” Whitcomb said. “We are working hard to try to find these prolific offenders. That’s really where we’re going to see the most dividend. We can’t just put officers everywhere.”
Technology as a defense
The Seattle Police Department says it does not specifically track the theft of delivered packages. Mail theft, which is a federal crime, is tracked, and is a different type of violation because there is a presumption of privacy when dealing with a mailbox. A package on a porch or in a mail room is different enough to not be in the same category.
But according to a report by August Home Inc., nearly 11 million U.S. homeowners have had a package stolen within the past year.
U.S. homeowners receive an average of 27 packages each year and 26 percent receive deliveries at least once a week. The majority of packages are stolen during the day when homeowners are out (74 percent) and theft victims spend close to $200 to replace each stolen package.
August, makers of smart locks and home access products, certainly has a stake in reporting the numbers as it seeks to convince consumers it can prevent such crimes with its products.
Mike Grabham, the founder of Seattle-based Package Guard, also thinks his device is a potential defense.
Package Guard is a Frisbee sized, wi-fi-enabled device that alerts a user when a package has been delivered and set on top of it. Package Guard sets off a loud alarm if anyone unauthorized tries to remove the package.
“I’ve been tracking package thefts, the mentions, through a couple services, and it’s off the charts basically starting just a few days before Thanksgiving,” Grabham said. “There’s just so many mentions between ‘porch pirates’ and ‘package theft’ it’s crazy. It’ll be this way until the end of the year.”
This is the first holiday season that Grabham’s product has been available and already the media mentions are coming fast and furious, as he’s been featured on “NBC Nightly News” and on Seattle TV news and elsewhere.
Grabham, who was featured as one of the “Inventions We Love” participants at the 2016 GeekWire Summit, did an initial production run of 2,500 units of the $69 Package Guard. He said they would be gone a week or 10 days after landing at his distribution center.
Even as the maker of a product which he promotes as being a way to deter package crime, Grabham said there really are only a couple of ways to be completely secure in protecting your deliveries. The Package Guard website even features a chart comparing all the tools at a homeowner’s disposal, ranging from just plain hope that nothing will get stolen, which is free, all the way up to a $999 iBin lockbox to hold packages securely on your front porch.
“Cameras at least give you some recognition of what’s going on,” Grabham said. “It’s not a deterrent though. It doesn’t stop anyone, or it doesn’t even slow them down for that matter — it lets you know that it’s happening. That’s good or bad, right? At least it lets you know.”
As far as the image generated being evidence that police could use, Grabham is doubtful.
“No offense, but police don’t have time and/or resources to go chase every package theft.”
Grabham is also skeptical about technology that can let a delivery person into your house while you’re not home, like August smart locks that are controlled remotely by smartphone.
“Although I know it’s a delivery guy and although I know what time he walks in and what time he walks out, there’s still … I think it’s going to take a year or two for people to be comfortable with that kind of a situation. It’s just gong to take some time. I think maybe three years from now it’s going to be more commonplace.”
In the meantime, like everyone else we spoke to who said the same thing, Grabham admits it’s a crime that’s not going to go away.
“Next year it’s going to be even worse,” Grabham said. “My product is not going to make a dent in this. If we’re having the same conversation next year on Dec. 1, I can almost almost guarantee I’ll sell a bunch of units, but the crime will be increasing. It’s too easy. Think about it — your 10-year-old son could commit this crime on a bicycle. It takes no thought, it takes no strategy, it takes no planning ahead, you just ride down the street, man.”
For now, forget about what’s in the box that ends up on your front step. The best thing about coming home to find a find a package is simply finding the package.
And if it’s a delivery from Amazon, the smiling logo on the side of the box seems to make even more sense nowadays: Be happy! You eluded the thieves … this time.