Preventing Porch Piracy

Mail theft traditionally falls under federal law, which has left states with limited options to prosecute offenders.

Mail theft traditionally falls under federal law, which has left states with limited options to prosecute offenders. Shutterstock

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Lawmakers in multiple states are considering legislation to increase penalties for mail thieves who steal packages and other deliveries from porches and mailboxes.

Porch pirates, beware: poaching other people’s packages could soon carry harsh penalties, including felony charges and jail time, as legislators in multiple states consider legislation to deter would-be mail thieves.

Stolen mail, a long-standing problem, has increased in recent years as more people turn to the internet (particularly Amazon) for their shopping needs. Nearly one in five Americans had a package stolen in 2016, according to a survey conducted by Ring, a home security firm. But because mail theft traditionally falls under federal jurisdiction, states have had little recourse in prosecuting offenders.

Until now. Beginning in September, porch pirates in Texas can be sentenced to between 180 days in jail and 10 years in prison, and subject to fines ranging from $4,000 to $10,000. Penalties are harsher if the stolen mail is found to contain “an item of identifying information” that could be used for identity theft. The bill, signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott this month, defines mail as “a letter, postal card, package, bag or other sealed article” that’s addressed to an individual and has been dropped off by a common carrier or delivery service, or left out by a customer for pickup.

Under Texas law, mail theft had previously been punishable only by ticket as a misdemeanor. State Rep. Ina Minjarez, the bill’s main sponsor, had worked on the issue for nearly four years and said she understood firsthand the annoyance of having mail go missing.

“All of our mail here in this building, we get hit several times,” she told KSAT. “It is a problem everywhere.”

In New Jersey, the state Assembly in March unanimously passed the “Defense Against Porch Pirates Act,” which would make package theft a fourth-degree crime if the worth of the stolen goods is less than $200. For packages worth more than $200, defendants would be guilty of “a crime one degree higher than the underlying offense.”

Stronger punishments are necessary, state Rep. Robert Karabinchak said, as mail theft can affect more than just online shopping deliveries.

“‘Porch piracy’ is a serious crime that can not only result in the loss of expensive gifts during the holiday season, it affects residents who order medication, and have legal documents and other important items delivered to their home,” Karabinchak, the bill's co-sponsor, said in a statement. “Taking delivery packages from a person’s property is just as invasive as breaking into a home to steal them.”

The bill was referred to the state senate in May and is currently awaiting a hearing before the judiciary committee. 

Similar efforts are underway in other states, including California, South Carolina, and Michigan, where 1,346 Amazon packages, two checks, and 59 mail-order prescriptions went missing from February to March of this year, according to estimates from the United States Postal Service.

In the absence of legislative action, some municipalities have found creative ways to combat the problem. Jersey City police in December placed decoy Amazon packages outside homes where thefts had occurred, each equipped with a GPS trackers and video camera to record thieves in the act. Police Chief Michael J. Kelly announced the project on Twitter, saying he hoped to deter criminals by making the sting public ahead of time.

The social media blitz wasn’t particularly effective, as one of the packages was stolen immediately.

"We had a box out on the street for three minutes before it was taken," Capt. James Crecco, told the Associated Press. "We thought it was a mistake at first."

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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