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How not to become a victim of holiday porch pirates

The home surveillance camera caught the porch pirate in action.

The apparent thief, bundled up in winter clothing, is seen at the door of a Buffalo home. The person picks up a white package and then stuffs it into a gray Kohl's shopping bag before walking away.

Last week, Buffalo police posted on their Facebook page three images from the Nest camera taken during the theft from a home described as being in the Richmond Avenue area. It was a warning to online shoppers to be careful with their deliveries – and to be on the lookout for porch pirates.

It clearly hit a nerve. The post was shared more than 600 times by the weekend.

"I just bought a lockbox for packages after my third package in a week was stolen. An amazing guy called and said he found our open box of medical supplies on Bailey, and he returned it to us. The first box stolen was cat litter and cat food. These thieves have no shame," one commenter wrote on the Police Department posting.

"This guy is definitely the grinch," said another.

Yet another had a novel idea: "I'm going to put my broken DVD player in an Amazon box, seal it up, and let them steal it." 

This being the holiday season and with so many people buying items online these days – a 2016 Pew Research Center study found that 80 percent of respondents said they had shopped online – it's probably no surprise that packages are being stolen from people's doorsteps.

"It's very easy for these guys to do it," said Buffalo Police Chief Anthony J. Barba. "All you do is follow the trucks."

Barba is the chief of the Northwest District – D District – where there's been a fair share of porch piracy this holiday shopping season, as is the case every year.

"I have the most affluent neighborhoods in Buffalo," he said. "Unfortunately, the pirates, what they do is, they're going to where they think the gifts and packages are better."

He doesn't think there's been an increase in the number of cases this year, but said the prevalence of home surveillance cameras and residents posting images from them may be making people a little more aware of the phenomenon.

And it's not just in Buffalo.

Police departments throughout the region and across the country are asking people to take precautions when having packages delivered.

"Tis the season!" Town of Tonawanda police warned on Facebook back on Nov. 26, which was Cyber Monday, when retailers eager to hang on to Black Friday shopping momentum offer hot online deals. "Considering all of the packages being delivered these days keep an eye out for suspicious vehicles and persons around neighbors houses trying to steal deliveries. Call 911 or 876-5300 if you see anything suspicious."

Cheektowaga police recruited their department Elf on a Shelf, Scout, to illustrate a porch piracy in action on their Facebook page. "Even guard dogs are not enough to stop Porch Pirates!!! Remember to get delivery receipts, have neighbors or family members grab packages for you or use ship to store options!!"

Amherst Assist. Police Chief Charles Cohen said a porch pirate or band of pirates hit about a dozen homes in East Amherst right around Black Friday.

"They were opening the box and leaving the packaging behind," Cohen said.

Police try to be on the lookout for thieves and also warn residents to make arrangements for their deliveries.

"A few years ago, we caught a guy in the act," he said. "But it's pretty tricky."

Police, the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and FedEx all offer tips on how to prevent becoming the victim of a porch pirate.

No. 1 for all of them? Get your package off the porch as soon as possible.

"Maybe that means having a neighbor grab it or your child," said Karen Mazurkiewicz, a spokeswoman for the USPS in Western New York. "Because you want to minimize the risk."

She also recommended having packages sent to your workplace, a neighbor's or a local drop-off spot. She suggested requiring a signature for more valuable purchases and putting a hold on your mail if you know you're going to be away. "You might know if you've ordered something but you never know when someone else is sending you something," she said.

The Postal Service, UPS and FedEx all offer services to help you track packages and know when they're coming.

The USPS offers "Informed Delivery" that lets you preview digital images of some packages the morning they're supposed to arrive and lets you leave messages for your letter carrier about where you want them left – say, for example, on the back porch.

UPS has "My Choice" that provides delivery options and FedEx offers "Delivery Manager" that lets you redirect packages to a drop-off location, such as a nearby drugstore.

Chief Barba added that porches aren't the only place where thieves are finding their loot.

He warned people not to leave presents inside vehicles, especially in plain view.

"We just had a guy buy a laptop for his daughter at Best Buy and he leaves it in the front seat of the car," Barba said. He discovered it was stolen the next morning.

He also advised against leaving shopping bags filled with items inside cars in parking lots. "They fill their car up and go into another store," Barba said. In the meantime, someone breaks in and takes all of the newly purchased items in the car.

"I see it all the time," he said.

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