The panopticon is looking more appealing

One of the advantages of living in a tiny rural town is that I really don’t worry much about having packages stolen off my porch — I did once have a package fail to show up on time, and we wondered what had happened to it. It turned out that a new deliveryperson had put it on our front step — we almost never use our front door, preferring the door that opens up to the driveway and has a kind of mud room (do houses in other parts of the country have mud rooms?), so we just didn’t see it. It sat there in plain sight to anyone passing by on College Avenue for about a month, getting rained on. You could have stolen it and we wouldn’t have even noticed.

I understand it’s a bigger problem in the suburbs of big cities, and can see how it would be infuriating, especially around this time of year. This one guy took an extreme approach to handling it, though, building a combination glitter bomb/stink bomb with a GPS and multiple recording cameras to catch people in the act of theft.

I guess I’m supposed to be impressed with the elaborate, over-engineered contraption, but what struck me most was the thieves — these were ordinary people who would just casually rob others with no qualms at all. Multiple people. Not organized rings of criminals, just passers-by who would steal from their neighbors without regret, people with nice cars and nice homes. What the fuck is wrong with you? Didn’t your mothers teach you anything?


  1. gijoel says

    Revenge is a dish best served with glitter.
    One of my neighbours in my apartment block keeps leaving his garage door open. I amazed that he hasn’t been robbed yet.

  2. says

    Unfortunately, many people are kept from breaking the law by fear of consequenes. If they think they can get away with it, they have no qualms whatsoever. Sonscience is not nearly as ubiquitous as I once in my youthful naivite thought.

  3. zetopan says

    “Didn’t your mothers teach you anything?”

    You are overlooking situations where their mothers actually taught them to steal. There are at least 100’s of thousands of videos on this topic.

  4. jrkrideau says

    I did think it was just a bit over-engineered but I would not assume that all those thieves were just casual passersby or someone in the neighborhood.

    It is quite possible that some of those people were/are professionals who cruise or stroll through relatively affluent neighborhoods to see what they can pick up. That couple with the backpacks could well be professionals. They were awfully smooth. The lad with the hoodie had more of an impulse thief manner.

    Many moons ago, I spent two years working in a provincial detention centre and it can be eye-opening what some people do for a living or hobby. I can still remember one of my inmate-employee’s complaining bitterly that XXX had not paid him for the microwave that he had shoplifted to order from Simpson-Sears. Just a few years ago I met a woman who was a professional shoplifter.

    I never met the men but apparently there was a two-man team in the area who would take your car out to a local reserve and torch it for CDN$200 if you figured the insurance payout would be better than a resale price.

    And, in those pre-internet days I had some great instructions on what to do with a stolen credit card.

  5. says

    I was wondering what happened to postal workers and couriers just leaving notes so you could go pick up your package if you weren’t at home, but I supposed with increased online shopping it’s getting less feasible to lug all the packages back and store them until someone comes in to claim them.

    If I ever find myself getting regular deliveries, I’d just get a PO box. As it is, I get things delivered to work when possible.

  6. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    By the way, I’ve turned on ad-block (I used to subscribe but am more an occasional lurker now) since when looking at the comments the page got hijacked to another page that tried to tell me I had a virus. I closed that, but I’m not sure if the ‘ad’ server is serving such junk.

    I have to pick mine up from the Post Office anyway since I live in apartment block with no secure facility for leaving big packages so they don’t even try to buzz to deliver any more (takes too long and they do not have the spare time to wait)

  7. antigone10 says

    I live in Minneapolis and have never had someone steal a package from me. I think it varies from place to place, and necessarily a neat urban/ rural split.

  8. laurian says

    I am astonished people still stand for delivery companies leaving valuables unsecured on a porch and calling it good.

  9. robro says

    Package theft has become a major concern in our neighborhood. In a less elaborate approach to revenge, some people box up junk and leave it on the porch.

    There has been one case where a fellow was caught leaving a house with a package in hand. Turned out he was trying to deliver the package, but couldn’t leave it without a signature.

    Tabby Lavalamp @ #6 — PO boxes are difficult to get in some places (years long waiting lists), and a cost. Plus, you have to get to the box. Sometimes delivery services do leave notes, e.g. if a signature is required by the sender. However, it can be difficult to arrange meeting a delivery, or going to pick it up in a busy city a hassle. So, you can authorize the delivery services to leave packages.

  10. says

    While it was never referred to as such, the house I grew up in effectively had a mud room at the back door, also our typically used door – that was where the driveway was, as well as the mailbox, helping to convince those with a package to leave it at the back steps. I mean, it was a back hall that also contained the half bath and pantry, but we used it as a mud room.

    This also makes me consider the possible inconvenience to those delivering mail! The house was on a corner; the front faced towards the street address, but the mailbox was on the side street.

  11. DonDueed says

    In the Boston area, the cops recently busted a seasonal UPS driver who was delivering packages, then texting his buddies to come along and grab them off the porch.

  12. davidc1 says

    Over here in good old GB ,you are very lucky if the delivery firms bother to leave parcels .
    A lot of drivers report back to the depot saying they have left a note saying they missed you .
    But ,it seems if there are too many parcels to deliver ,THE MANAGEMENT tell they to do that .

  13. Jazzlet says

    I do get parcels left on my front porch, but not in plain sight, I request they are left behind the bag of compost in the corner, and all the delivery people happily do that. We have kids going to and coming home from two different secondary schools walk by, as well as all sorts of other people, but I’ve not had anything go astray. I think expecting a visible parcel to be left by everyone that passes is ignoring the plentiful evidence that many people will steal things if they think they can get away with it, so why tempt them? It’s just dumb.

  14. Jazzlet says

    I am also in the UK and haven’t had that problem since I started to tell the delivery people they could leave things behind the compost.

  15. microraptor says

    I’ve never had a package stolen, but I’ve had such a hassle with deliveries that I started getting packages shipped to where I worked.

    These days I use a private mailbox service (not an actual PO Box, but the same idea) and don’t have to worry about some idiot trying to deliver a package to the front door I never use or one of my neighbors or a random passer-by swiping a package from me.

  16. lowkey says

    I was talking about this with my FedEx rep (we ship a lot of packages from my warehouse) and he said one thing they’re doing is dropping packages at your local Walgreens. Apparently, Walgreens will hold them for you. Not sure if they charge for that, though (Walgreens, not FedEx).
    As a shipper of goods, I still struggle with the question of who is responsible for the stolen package. Should I, the seller/shipper, replace it for free? Is it the buyer’s problem once it leaves my warehouse? Customers can request signature-only deliveries but almost all do not. Amazon has replaced things for me, but as a small business, it could get out of hand quickly and crush my profitability.

  17. andyo says

    Living in an old small one-bedroom one-bathroom apartment in the LA area, one of the main things that struck me as well was, wtf, thieves have nice houses and/or drive better cars than what I drove for 12 years until a couple years ago. Maybe one of the boxes they stole had $1 million inside?

    I’m not even upset about my living quarters, I’m just glad I can afford something comfortable enough by myself (though probably not for long, gentrification is rearing its head already). But not only here, I see all the time people who do these things or complain about not being rich enough, I’ll roll my eyes, well try growing up in a developing country.

    OTOH, I do get the resentment people have for the rich, especially in this country, but petty theft against people in your own tax bracket is no Robin Hood shit.

    And btw, LAers, traffic in LA is just fine. Try driving in a developing country.

  18. andyo says

    My apartment is at the end of a cul-de-sac, plus it’s not facing the street, so I’ve never had this issue. But just yesterday I was surprised that UPS has added a tracking map to their app. I opened the door literally 3 seconds after the UPS person left the box. I even had time to thank them. Amazon does it as well for the packages with their own shipping company. Hopefully Fedex and USPS follow, though USPS may not be able to afford it.

  19. brucegee1962 says

    With the title of this post, I thought the comments might get into a discussion of cameras everywhere, public and private. My understanding is that in London and some other European cities, there is almost no public place you can go to where a camera won’t be watching. I’m starting to wonder if that may not be a good idea — not just to watch out for criminals, but also to hold accountable the criminals who wear uniforms and badges. But then again, quis custodiet ipse custodes? What do you all think?

  20. lakitha tolbert says

    In some cities the postal service has started taking photos of the packages they leave on your porch. This is not true in every case though. But then I live next to very nosy and trustworthy neighbors, and someone is usually at home.

    We live in the “inner city” and I’ve only ever had a package stolen once. I ordered my very first Kindle a few years ago and never got it. I don’t know that it was stolen from the porch, but the second one I ordered I got without a problem.

  21. flange says

    I realize that “What’s wrong with you?” and “”Have you no sense of decency?” are rhetorical questions. But the Mueller investigation is… aahhh, I don’t have the energy to finish this.

  22. jrkrideau says

    @ 6 Tabby Lavalamp
    Don’t get a P.O. Box. Canada Post will give you a virtual one for free.

    I almost never get parcels delivered but just in case I got one a little while ago. I have not used it yet but the idea looks good. I discovered the service just after the last thing I had delived.

    See Canada Post FlexDelivery.

    If you are near a full service post office it is worth browsing. They have a number of innovative (weird?) services.

  23. says

    I saw a slightly more low-tech solution to the problem where the guy would empty his cat’s litter tray into an old Amazon box (of which he had plenty), tape it up, and leave it on his doorstep…

    Me, I’d have been inclined to add a note: “This time it was glitter. The next time, it’ll be bees.” 😈

  24. susans says

    #18, where in L.A. is traffic just fine? What are your standards? I visit my mother frequently, who lives 38 miles from me and it takes two hours to drive home from Sherman Oaks to Long Beach, occasionally longer.
    One of the most common complaints on NextDoor are porch thieves. Many houses around here are equipped with security video and those images make it clear that the thieves are not usually casual walkers taking advantage of an unexpected bonus.

  25. davidc1 says

    @115 The postman will leave stuff in one of my sheds ,but they seem to change every few months .Just as i get one trained a new one appears .Private firms will just leave stuff in the front porch .

  26. says

    A coupled hours ago I got a call from an Amazon delivery person, asking me when someone was likely to be in because no one was answering the door. I told them that Georgia would be back shortly, so they said they would try again in a couple of hours.
    Maybe Amazon reads PZ????

  27. Pierce R. Butler says

    Tabby Lavalamp @ # 6: If I ever find myself getting regular deliveries, I’d just get a PO box.

    Proceed with caution: at least here in USAstan, vendors using commercial delivery services (UPS, FedEx, etc) usually refuse to accept orders to PO Boxes, as only the US Postal Service can put things in them.

  28. Ragutis says

    Gotta love the device. Looks like something Adam Savage and Simone Giertz might come up with together.

    The local news here (St. Pete, FL area) has been on this for months now. They keep pushing those Ring type doorbells and security cams, but while it may provide them (the news station) with almost nightly footage, I’m not sure how many arrests they’ve actually led to.

    I’ve never had a problem of this type, but I have a hedge that shields my front entrance from the street. These porch grabbers appear to target loot that they can easily see from the street or sidewalk, although I have heard of some starting to shadow FedEx/UPS/USPS trucks to watch what they drop off.

    I gotta say, I do like the litter box idea from above. If this becomes more of a problem around here, I’ll have to remember that when I get a new kitty.

  29. johnlee says

    Three thoughts:

    Like PZ, I was initially sruck by how ‘normal’ the thieves in the video seemed, but as #5 jrkrideau says, professional thieves would try to look ‘normal’, which makes sense.

    The second thought was how ‘normal’ it is that all of this was captured by camera. The video that #4 zetopan shows surprises us because of the behaviour of the people being filmed, not because of the fact that they were caught on film for us all to see.
    Orwell was right about state surveillance. What he didn’t predict was that private citizens would use surveillance cameras, or that the recordings could be seen by the general public.

    The third is what lengths people will go to to get a video scattered around the internet.

  30. nomdeplume says

    I live in the country, about half an hour’s drive from the city. This enormous distance is too much for the package delivery companies, who, in spite of charging a premium for “country delivery” won’t carry the parcels any further than their city depot. Sometimes they claim to have found no-one home – a bad call since I am always home!

    After 73 years on the planet I am still capable of being amazed by the behaviour of people – once had my rubbish bins stolen from the front gate! I mean, seriously?! People who steal rubbish bins wouldn’t be deterrd by any kind of “trap”!

  31. Matrim says

    I would prefer them just to leave a pick up slip rather than a package, but honestly I really wish they would just take the extra 1.5 seconds and ring the doorbell. At my house someone is home about 98% of the time, so if they’d ring the bell we’d never have to worry about packages sitting out.

    Fortunately we’ve never (to my knowledge) had a package stolen. We have had other thefts, though.

  32. bigwhale says

    People can be pretty desperate these days.Obviously there are bad eggs and bad parents that don’t teach, or even parents that set the example of teaching to steal.

    But in our unfair society, I also try to remember the messages people get from society. Especially in lower classes, people see higher class people breaking the rules all the time and flourishing. “It makes me smart”, as Trump said about tinkering his taxes. There is a bunch of confirmation bias acting on this as well, but thieves probably don’t see themselves as doing anything that others are not doing.

    When we have mothers having their children taken away and thrown into jail when they try to apply for legal benefits, it is no wonder people think they have no option other than to work outside the rules. People are getting harassed and hurt by law enforcement when they have done nothing wrong, so how would their lives be different if they were actually breaking the law? Then it starts to become normal and the rules break down.

    This is not a defense of theft, but we should think about the systems that lead to the theft. The answer probably isn’t to morally shame, blame parents, and look down on people and communities (that is part of what got us into this). The answer is to give people opportunities and a sense of empowerment so they don’t feel like they need to take an opportunity to steal.

    Even people with nice homes and cars can be severely in debt and probably haven’t had a raise in years. Their mothers might be struggling with healthcare bills and choosing between pills and buying presents. There are certainly some deplorables and libertarians out there who just don’t care about anyone else, but I try not to be too quick to judge.

    Fundamental Attribution Error: people tend to (unduly) emphasize the agent’s internal characteristics (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other people’s behavior.

  33. unclefrogy says

    package delivery used to be stuff from friends and relatives and some mail order catalog sales. A real hit or miss on sell-able value inside and the volume was smaller besides not very dependable to be a viable strategy now however with the growth in on-line shopping of all kinds of products from expensive tech gadgets to fancy bath soap and camping supplies as well as clothes, the odds that the contents of any given box containing something of value that could be easily recovered has increased. sounds to me like insurance and security have not caught up yet.
    it is easy to put things on my porch behind a short wall so that nothing can be sen from the street
    uncle frogy

  34. vucodlak says

    Didn’t your mothers teach you anything?

    Yes. My mother taught me:
    1.) Property is more important than human life.
    2.) Appearances are more important than morals.
    3.) Blood is thicker than water, but social standing is solid gold (and gold is always the best).
    4.) People who have more than we do are inherently superior, and we should strive to be just like them.
    Accordingly, I know not to steal packages off of porches because it would embarrass my kin, who would then be further shamed when they had to disown me and pretend they’d never met me. Do I win morality?

    On the other hand, my mentor taught me:
    1.) Don’t steal from those with less than you.
    2.) Don’t steal from those with more than you unless it serves the interests of justice.
    3.) Don’t steal unless you can be reasonably certain that you won’t get caught, because she would be very cross if she had to bail me out of jail.
    4.) Don’t kill anyone over stuff.
    Accordingly, I know not to steal packages off of porches because it’s wrong and I’d probably get caught anyway. She’s not around to bail me out, anymore.

    I’ll stick with my mentor, thanks. My mentor who was definitely a criminal, though not one who’d ever do anything as asinine as porch piracy. Actual hoist-the-Jolly-Roger-and-send-the-Queen’s-dogs-to-the-briny-deep piracy maybe, but stealing random packages that are probably presents? Have some decency, for crying out loud!

  35. Curt Sampson says

    @bigwhale #34: Yeah, really good point.

    As for the DIY mass surveilance (@brucegee1962 #20, @johnlee #30), that was a societal thing in Vernor Vinge’s novel Rainbows End. There almost all property owners have surveilance cameras also surveiling the area around the property that appear to be funded by automatically selling the footage: there are online exchanges where you just enter the place and time of the footage you want and choose which results you want to buy. Tailing someone is now a lot easier, and possible even after the fact.

  36. says

    Re: Mudrooms. We have’em here in Maine. Usually at the entrance from the dooryard. Also serves as an airlock where the cat can sit trying to decide if going out in 18 F and a foot of snow is a better option than the litter box.

  37. rwgate says

    Just last week the USPS left a large package by my front door. I work at home and was in when it was delivered. Nobody knocked on my door to let me know the package was there. I only discovered it later when I came out of my home office. The top of the box had been opened, but nothing had been taken. Based on the size of the box, someone must have thought it was a very large flat screen tv. It wasn’t, but whoever opened it must have been disappointed and mad that it wasn’t a tv. Actually, the contents were worth upwards of $60,000. I have since notified USPS not to leave any such packages without seeing me personally.

  38. =8)-DX says

    From the OP:

    passers-by who would steal from their neighbors without regret, people with nice cars and nice homes

    Let’s not forget the primary cause of casual theft like this: poverty and social inequality. Not everyone has nice homes and nice cars or the latest gizmo. Stealing things from well-off suburbanites who can afford to just order the thing again is not something I’d consider a terribly immoral act. Personal property isn’t private property, but it’s the redistribution of labour of the working class (i.e. another form of theft) which makes the difference between the private property of the have nots and the haves in the first place.

    (Caveat I know what it feels like to be stolen from, it really sucks, but looking at the state of today’s society I can’t bring myself to just outright condemn all acts of petty theft, especially from the rich or upper middle-class.)

  39. F.O. says

    Well off people steal because they’re passively evil, ie, just callous.
    They seize the opportunity just because it’s there, seldom stopping to think about the damage they cause and if they do, it will be a hand-wave of “it’s their fault for being careless”.
    This is one of the few instances where I will distinguish “they” from “we”, the rest of humanity.

  40. madtom1999 says

    The driveway to our house is 1/2m long. Every now and then when I take the dog for a walk out to the road he will find a package that someone has just left at the end of the driveway in the long grass!
    One of the most popular thefts around here is heating oil – its a bit annoying when it happens in the week before xmas as you will have to put some in the tank from overpriced garages or go cold for the season.

  41. says

    Reminds me of the most recent rant from our in-store Palin clone (she convincingly dressed up as Palin for Halloween the year that she was running for VP…) – According to her, “social media” is destroying the American family, not, you know, the rabid GOP/libertarian, “Every man for themselves. Even if I am not an island, if I steal enough, I can buy one. I need to look out for myself first, even if that means selling my own grandmother for cash.”, econo-political philosophy. Nope, its all a liberal, Hitler like, plot to use social media and, yeah, irony is dead, “socialist” community ideals to destroy families, so the government can march down the streets and.. something…


  42. zetopan says

    “I guess I’m supposed to be impressed with the elaborate, over-engineered contraption”

    The only technical error that I saw in that video is that he didn’t spray out an indelible fluorescent ink!
    That would leave a more permanent mark on the crooks that anyone could see.

  43. Curious Digressions says

    That inspires me to set up a spring-snake in the glove box to annoy the feral children who keep tossing my car. There’s nothing of value for them to take, but they seem to be amused, because it’s happened more than once.

  44. Curious Digressions says

    Also, the trap-parcel isn’t new. My great grandpa, who was a teen in Chicago during the depression had a favorite story about wrapping up rabbit guts in butcher paper and leaving it on a bus stop bench to see how long it would take someone to stuff the “meat” into their bag or coat.

  45. susans says

    #41, when the porch thieves steal your Mom’s medicine or Depends, come back and tell us how it is just fine because suburbia.