Every time I decide to do something vaguely useful with my life, the universe conspires against me. Last week, for example, I decided I was going to get into gardening. Growing stuff seemed a healthy sort of way to cope with the disintegration of American democracy and the rapid rollback of civil rights. It’s certainly healthier than my usual coping mechanisms: drinking wine and complaining.
Now, I don’t know very much about gardening but I do know that you need soil, so I ordered a couple of large bags of the stuff online. The soil took a couple of days to arrive and just minutes to be stolen by porch pirates. Two guys dressed like delivery men scurried over to my doorstep and hauled it off in their car. Instead of spending that evening cultivating my garden, I drank wine and complained.
You may have spotted a porch pirate in the wild, too – they are everywhere. Online purchases rocketed during the pandemic and so did package theft – on both sides of the Atlantic. In my Philadelphia neighbourhood, thieves often follow delivery vans and dress in hi-vis vests or Amazon uniforms to deflect suspicion. Ordering online has become like a real-life gameshow: you have five minutes to grab your stuff before someone else does.
Package theft is obviously not the biggest issue facing the world – usually, the company you ordered from will send you a replacement – but it still feels violating and frustrating to have your stuff stolen so brazenly. Particularly as the police don’t really care and there is nothing you can do about the problem other than stop ordering things to your house. (Which I am never going to do because 1) I don’t have a car, and 2) I am lazy.)
You know what definitely doesn’t deter package thieves? Video doorbells or security cameras. There was a video doorbell on our house when we moved in, so I activated it thinking it might be useful. All it does is record footage of the porch pirates at work, which somehow just adds insult to injury. The doorbell also sends you so many notifications that you can transform from a normal person into a paranoid freak within days.
Another extremely bad idea for dealing with package thieves is trying to outwit them with fake packages containing dog poo or glitter. Mark Rober, a former Nasa engineer, has achieved mild internet fame with YouTube videos of booby-trapped packages loaded full of glitter that explode on the porch pirate. The videos are satisfying to watch but I wouldn’t try it at home unless you want to make yourself a target for someone with dubious morals and your address.
The one upside I’ve found to rampant package theft is that it has been a good way to meet the neighbours. There is a lovely old lady across the street called Norma who has taken it upon herself to be the neighbourhood watch. She sits outside her house on a folding chair most days and grabs packages whenever she sees them, which is extremely helpful. The only problem is that now I never know if a thief has the package or if Norma’s got it.
She can also, bless her heart, be a little overzealous: the other day I put out a bucket of food scraps for the composting service to collect and she ran off with it. “Someone will take the bucket!” she chided when I explained I’d left it out on purpose. “They’ll dump out what’s inside and they’ll use it for cleaning.” It was quite a heartwarming image really: a porch pirate coming home from a long day swiping parcels to mop the floor using my compost bucket.
Anyway, there are three morals to this story: 1) secure your food scraps, 2) get rid of your video doorbell, and 3) find yourself a Norma.
Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist