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Porch pirates can throw off your holiday plans: Here's how to keep your gifts safe

Americans will spend $63 billion shopping online this holiday season. Many won't protect their packages.

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Americans are estimated to spend $63 billion online for holiday shopping this season. But package theft could cost shoppers and retailers significant time and money. What's more, seemingly common sense deterrents, such as gates and security cameras, might not stop porch pirates. However, there are some measures you can take to ensure the safety of your packages.

To gather holiday shopping data, YouGov surveyed 2,524 respondents on behalf of CNET and asked them about their expected online purchases, how long they planned to leave their home unattended and what preventative measures they planned to use to avoid package theft during the holiday season, among other questions.

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The results showed 38% of respondents planning to do no online holiday shopping and 28% not planning to leave their home unattended between November and February.

Yet for many, the holidays are still a time of increased online shopping and travel -- whether for brief periods or for multiday trips. Even factoring in those planning not to shop online, respondents planned to spend $244 on average on online holiday shopping alone this season. Over a quarter (26%) reported plans to leave their home unattended for 12 hours or more.

A 2020 survey of 2,000 consumers by C+R, a Chicago-based research firm, found that 43% reported having at least one package stolen from their porch. Of those who had experienced package theft, nearly two thirds (64%) had experienced it multiple times.

Despite high numbers of Americans planning to stay in the house the majority of the time, rising numbers of online shopping means package theft could mean headaches for shoppers and retailers, which often provide refunds for stolen packages. You're likely to receive a refund for a loss, but supply chain troubles and the time-sensitivity of holiday shopping mean package theft can still bring significant stress to shoppers.

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Video doorbells aren't a guaranteed deterrent against package theft.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Many people don't have protections in place to curb package theft. About 15% of respondents planning to spend money on online holiday shopping this year said they "will not do anything to prevent package theft this holiday season."

Relatively few people plan to use robust interventions to protect their deliveries, such as requiring signatures for package deliveries (13%). Instead, many are opting for measures like leaving lights on (19%), leaving a car in the driveway (16%) or asking a neighbor to keep an eye on the house (19%).

Independent research suggests such measures -- especially given that package theft occurs most often during daylight hours -- may not be enough to consistently protect deliveries.

Stopping porch pirates

In a 2019 article in Criminal Justice Studies, researchers reviewed videos of 98 instances of package theft that had been uploaded to YouTube. They made suggestions based on the observations but noted in their research that their findings were based on a selective sample and shouldn't be considered representative of the general population.

"During the approach, gates, cameras and resident vehicles on the property did not appear to interrupt the crime," wrote the research team. 

That said, the more obstacles there are to stealing a package, the less likely it seems people are to attempt it. The farther from the street a porch was -- and the smaller the packages -- the less likely bypassers were to try and steal them.

In addition, the researchers suggested creating more visibility for those inside the house to see out, and for neighbors to see an attempted theft.

Finally, a few practices can make package theft impossible or significantly more difficult. Requiring signatures for deliveries is one way to ensure deliveries aren't left on your porch. Likewise, using a locked dropbox could help monitor packages left on your porch.