Like so many Canadians, Candace Schwindt spent part of November 24—Black Friday—scouring the Internet for once-a-year deals. On the hunt for Christmas gifts, the Regina mother of two found some pretty sweet specials: Paw Patrol items for her young sons, an activity centre for her nephew, and an assortment of cute clothes for her niece. Thanks to the ease of online shopping, all she had to do was click a few “purchase” icons and wait for the presents to show up.
They arrived Dec. 4, via UPS: three boxes left in a neat pile on her front porch. About an hour later, however, another man steered his vehicle onto the property and walked toward the door, dressed in grey sweatpants, a light blue hoodie and a plaid jacket. After taking a quick scan for potential witnesses, the unidentified visitor snatched the top two packages from the pile and scurried back to his car. He made sure to return for the third box, the biggest, before speeding away.
The family’s doorbell camera recorded the entire episode—yet another example of a so-called “porch pirate” doing his best Grinch impersonation. “It was very unnerving to watch the footage,” says Schwindt, 29. “You feel violated that someone is in your space.”
She’s not alone. With Christmas fast approaching—and more and more Canadians turning to online retailers—police are warning e-buyers to be wary of would-be criminals on the lookout for deliveries lying in plain sight. Although it is difficult to pin down specific stats, the anecdotal evidence suggests that parcel theft is on the rise this holiday season. Surveillance videos like the Schwindts’ are turning up on social media every day, with many landing on local newscasts.
Related Article: While oil prices go down, online shopping bills go up
In one recent upload, a suspect wearing a fluorescent vest and an actual pirate hat (a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap) can be seen swiping a package off a front porch in Richmond, B.C.—then fleeing in a rather conspicuous red Corvette. In Gatineau, Que., one thief actually returned the stolen loot within minutes of grabbing it, clearly unimpressed with the bathroom accessories he found inside the box.
One of the most viral Facebook videos—viewed more than 520,000 times, at last count—was recorded in the Calgary neighbourhood of Coventry Hills, where a toque-wearing thief pounced mere minutes after five Amazon boxes arrived on a family’s porch. Clearly oblivious to the camera recording his every move, the culprit initially turned to leave with four of the boxes cradled in his arms, only to notice a large envelope he initially didn’t spot. The man put down the boxes, reached for the envelope, and placed it on top of his wobbly pile. Seconds later, he was gone.
“There are thieves who actually follow the courier trucks, wait for the package to be delivered, then steal that package within 60 seconds,” says Constable Jonathan Morrice, a crime-prevention officer with the Toronto police. “On some of the streets in our division, people’s porches are so close to the sidewalk that a thief hardly has to even break stride. It is a very accessible crime.”
Greg Parslow of Langley, B.C., knows exactly what the constable is talking about. In mid-November, his daughter ordered a baking pan online; when nobody was home to receive the delivery, the FedEx driver left the box in front of the door. About 40 minutes later—security camera rolling—a black car reversed into Parslow’s driveway, the rear license plate concealed by some type of material. “It looked like the guy was just doing his job that day,” Parslow says. Calm and collected, the man walked toward the door, grabbed the box and drove off.
Parslow says his only regret is that he didn’t see the guy’s expression when he opened the box and discovered a measly baking pan. At the very least, he takes some comfort in knowing the man’s face has been plastered all over Facebook. “It may have cooled his jets a bit if he did see it,” says the 64-year-old. “Maybe it stopped him from doing it to somebody else.”
Constable Jason Doucette, a spokesman for the Vancouver police, says it’s too early to say whether porch pirates are more prevalent this holiday season than last. But the force considers parcel theft enough of a nuisance that it created a one-minute YouTube video aimed at warning the public—complete with Doucette dressed in a green Grinch costume. “I reluctantly agreed,” he smiles. “I said: ‘If you can’t see my face, I’ll do whatever you want.’”
Echoing police in other jurisdictions, the Vancouver video encourages online shoppers to weigh their options. If a parcel is valuable, consider having it shipped to a local post office or package depot, to be picked up at your convenience. Or maybe choose a shipping option that demands a signature before delivery, ensuring the box isn’t left sitting on a porch. If possible, you may also have your packages sent to your workplace, not your house. “We want to remind people that thieves are opportunists, so if they are provided with an opportunity to take a parcel off your front porch that is left unattended, they will take it,” Doucette says. “What we’re really telling people is: ‘Don’t tempt a thief.’ ”
To a large extent, delivery companies are pushing the same message: if you don’t want your parcel left on your porch, choose a different shipping option, such the types Doucette suggests. Most companies have some variation. Delivery firms also stress that, for all those videos popping up on social media, parcel theft is actually very rare. A spokesman for Canada Post says although theft does happen “from time to time,” it pales in comparison to the more than one million parcels mail carriers successfully deliver every day during the Christmas season. At UPS, meanwhile, lost or stolen packages account for “less than a fraction of a percentage point” of all parcels delivered, a spokeswoman says. (FedEx did not respond to specific questions about theft statistics, saying only that “while we do our utmost to ensure the safe and secure delivery of every package, there are steps our customers can take for added peace of mind.”)
Although it may be tempting to demand that all couriers stop leaving parcels unattended, such a move has the potential to inconvenience as many customers as it pleases. Many don’t want the hassle of having to be at home to sign for a package, or picking up a parcel at a different location, says Jon Hamilton, the Canada Post spokesman. “In today’s online shopping world, convenience is the new currency: giving people the option so they can choose,” he says. “We’re just going to follow the instructions we’re given.”
Related Article: Can Canada Post survive the digital era?
In most instances, retailers will work with customers to recoup their losses. In Parslow’s case, his daughter received a new baking pan from the seller at no extra cost. Although it took some effort because she ordered gifts from numerous retailers, Schwindt says her orders were eventually reshipped, too, with UPS chipping in a portion of the cost. “It’s such a rotten feeling having something stolen from you, and then there’s the hassle of having to get everything replaced in the time crunch before Christmas,” she says. “I’m really hoping the police can catch this guy.”
In Burlington, Ont., Derek Freudenthaler has done all he can to achieve a similar outcome—going so far as to set up a sting operation to catch the crook who targeted his suburban neighbourhood.
It all began on Dec. 8, when the 35-year-old father of three was expecting a package from Amazon containing some Christmas gifts (a crochet bag for his mother and some toys for the kids, worth about $105). When he came home from work, though, the box was nowhere to be found. It turned out some of his neighbours were missing packages, too, and by that evening someone had stumbled upon a bunch of torn-open boxes discarded near a roundabout. Clearly, a serial thief was on the loose.
“At first, I was shocked,” Freudenthaler says. “Then I was disappointed. And then you’re genuinely angry at the fact somebody would do this.”
Although Freudenthaler has a doorbell camera, it wasn’t working that afternoon because, in a freak case of bad timing, his router was being upgraded. But on Monday, with everything operational, he set his trap: an Amazon box loaded with one of his daughter’s dirty diapers—and a sign inside that said: “We’ve got you on camera. Merry Christmas.”
At 3:09 p.m., the thief took the bait. The resulting video is now in the hands of Halton Regional Police.
“If any article you write deters one person from doing this crime, it’s worth me speaking out,” Freudenthaler says. “What if this happened to a family where $100 is literally all they had to spend on Christmas, and their package got stolen?”
For the record, Amazon replaced the items free of charge. But from now on, Freudenthaler says he is going to think twice about his shipping options before clicking the order icon. “Criminals are crafty,” he says, “and they know the time of year.”
For more from Maclean’s, click here.