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Vigilante Justice for the Porch Pirates Who Steal Doorstep Packages

How incredible is it to have anything you can conceive of delivered to your home in a day or two, if the odds are also excellent that it will be stolen well before you even make it home? This is the question burning in the anxious minds of every online consumer this holiday season as we cross off our gift lists, then cross our fingers that we’ll actually get what we ordered. Recent surveys found that a third of Americans have had packages swiped from their doorsteps, and half of Americans say they know someone who has, USA Today reported. Fed up with the hassle and frustrated with the available recourse, everyday citizens have taken matters into their own hands to deal with these punks, now dubbed “porch pirates.”

Packages have been swiped from doorsteps as long as packages have been delivered, but The New York Times reports that law enforcement believes the crime has risen in direct proportion to the increase in online shopping. One recent case made headlines when two teens in Lincoln, Ne., were arrested with 36 packages in the car they’d snagged from residents around town.

Nirva Tolia, the CEO of Neighborhood app Nextdoor, told the Times that posts lamenting stolen packages go up 500 percent this time of year, suggesting that it at least happens enough that people worry like hell about it.

Not helping matters is that unattended goods piled up on a porch in broad daylight are basically the crime of opportunity of the century. In other words, it’s a both immensely appealing crime, and a thief doesn’t even have to be that smart to pull this off. The more enterprising among them just find a UPS or FedEx truck to follow, swiping up the packages like a giant trail of Amazon breadcrumbs. The situation creates an unfortunate whack-a-mole scenario for delivery companies, who do what they can, and cops, who do what they can, and consumers, who are kinda screwed.

So far, that goes like this: Retailers claim they resend goods reported as never having been delivered with “few questions asked,” USA Today writes. (This is highly debatable, but let’s assume good faith here.) Next up, the consumer, who may at least have some footage of the crime. Only cameras aren’t necessarily a deterrent either, in spite of how ubiquitous and affordable they are.

Though we see a pretty regular flood of stories about cops releasing these videos to the public, USA Today reports that police are divided on whether these are a truly effective means of capturing the bad guys. The Philadelphia and Houston police departments tell them, for instance, that they release every video they’re sent and that there’s always a chance the person is identified and arrested. But a police captain outside Silicon Valley named Gary Berg told the paper that he could only recall one instance of video ever leading to an identification or arrest.

“People who are relying on the camera to protect their packages are probably kidding themselves,” Berg said.

Pretty bleak, but here’s one thing that has worked so far, on that end: Berg said they’ve tested the use of a bait package with a GPS tracker to catch would-be thieves, and after multiple arrests, he believes it’s sent a message to the community that deters more crime.

But even if retailers and cops act in perfect concert to aid consumers or nab thieves, you’re still out the package in the meantime, and when it comes to gift-giving season, this is more than just a nuisance — this is a sold-out Christmas toy, or a perfect gift for your aunt that there’s no time to replace. This is why some people have taken to vigilante justice to protect their goods, booby trapping boxes with pet poop or decoys like a broken Xbox or a dead squirrel.

Up for the next-level vigilante justice award this year is Jaireme Barrow, a Tacoma, Wash., man who got so sick of people stealing his various deliveries off his porch, and so tired of cops doing nothing with the surveillance he captured, that he built his own rigged box with an explosive device in it that, when picked up, shoots blanks and scares the bejesus out of the thief.

Called TheBlankBox, it’s a dummy cardboard box that when picked up, sets off a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with a blank. He says he’s caught about 20 people so far, and he posts the videos to YouTube. He now sells the box for as little as $60, and according to The Washington Post, it’s now backordered for hundreds more.

That sounds deeply satisfying, and Barrow says the box is safe and won’t actually hurt anyone. But like all things that sound too good to be true, a police spokesperson told The Post that the box is illegal because it’s an explosive device, the manufacturing of which requires a license.

Also complicating matters is the fact that people have actually died from guns loaded with blanks due to the impact of the shot at close range, which means it’s only a matter of time before this goes really, really badly. (A landmark Supreme Court case in Iowa did not favor a man who rigged his front door with a 20-gauge spring-loaded shotgun, aimed at the legs, to catch a thief who tried to enter. Though that gun had real bullets, and the thief was duly injured, he sued, and the court’s argument was that such preemptive deadly force against him was not justified. So in the event someone dies from one of Barrow’s blanks, the case could serve as a precedent here.)

Of course, most of us aren’t going to go such delightfully insane lengths to get a good laugh and teach a thief a lesson. But our options still aren’t great. If you really want to protect your packages, you could pay a fee to have the item delivered to a locker somewhere else. You can drive to the nearest Whole Foods to pick up an Amazon package. You can use Amazon’s tracker or Fedex’s app to communicate more specifically with the driver about your whereabouts upon delivery. You can try to lean into the UPS or Fedex networks they’ve begun creating to enlist various retailers in your community to be a holding place for your package, like grocery stores, dry cleaners and delis. You can try Amazon Key for $250, and have a special electronic lock installed at your home with a security camera to make deliveries safe. (Reviews suggest this has a few kinks.)

You could try to schedule deliveries for when you’ll be home, ask a neighbor who is always home to hold it for you, or just spend all day tracking that order in the hopes that you can somehow dash out and be there before it’s too late.

But every single one of these solutions adds extra work and expense to the consumer, who was, after all, promised a utopian, hassle-free ease with ordering online in the first place. Which is why in the meantime, most of us will just continue to do what we always have done: Have all our packages delivered to work, and hope the damn thing doesn’t come after we’re gone for the night, or on a weekend, or when the place is closed, because that sort of thing happens all the time, too.