The Porch Pirates are in overdrive.
Their crimes are unfolding on doorsteps across the nation as Christmas presents, ordered from online retailers, arrive by the hundred of millions. And plenty of those packages disappear.
The thieves are totally legit villains now because they have an official villain name. Search Porch Pirates on Twitter or other social media, and you'll see what I mean.
But some of the 26 million victims who say they've had boxes swiped from their porches are heroically fighting back, determined to protect their precious packages.
They're using booby traps, secret cameras, geo-trackers and bait boxes. The scenes of Good vs. Evil being posted online make for days of great comic-book reading, complete with shaming doorbell video clips of sneaky pirates, clumsy pirates, grandma pirates in flowery tunics, at least one pirate in a bra -- even regretful pirates who've returned to the scene of the crime to leave an apology note.
And paid crimefighters are now in on the action, with police chiefs calling porch pirates the scourge of the holiday season and investigators setting up sting operations like the Fort Worth (Texas) Police Department's "Operation Grinch Pinch" or the police in Wheeling, West Virginia, leaving snarky notes wishing the duped bad guys "Merry Christmas.
But the doorstep vigilantes are the most entertaining. There's even a guy in Tacoma, Washington, who is marketing a device that sets off a 12-gauge blank the moment a pirate lifts the bait package.
One D.C. woman, fed up with having nearly $1,000 worth of packages stolen from her Capitol Hill porch, left a pretty awesome present for her pirates - a box heavy with her two dogs' poop.
"It didn't stop them, though," Andrea Hutzler reported.
What did stop them was a Nancy Drew combination of sleuthing and teamwork after a porch camera spotted a white truck driving away, and a neighborhood email discussion group identified the truck and got the license plate. Police used the license plate to track down the driver, who ultimately turned on the partner, Hutzler said.
That didn't stop other Porch Pirates from swooping in.
How did she finally stop the thefts?
"We moved. We're in Northern Virginia now," Hutzler said. "I've lived in Illinois, Houston, New Orleans, overseas. It never happened anywhere but D.C."
My husband and I have been fighting this for years. The first time it happened was with an Internet router we ordered online.
It was snowing, and the thief left footprints. We followed them, only to find the bubble wrap, the receipt, the empty box, then the road, where the prints ended.
The second time we thought we would thwart this by requiring a signature. The person who intercepted the package signed for it as "Cathy Lanier," then Washington's police chief.
So we stopped having anything valuable sent to the house. Then the thefts became annoying. When a five-pound tub of purple fondant I ordered to make a princess cake for a daughter's friend went missing, I snooped around the neighborhood, found the box, found the tub, found the wad of purple fondant in the bushes. I learned how to make my own fondant that year.
Porch Pirating is not an easy crime to track because not everyone reports it. If you just look at the Google search for "Amazon package stolen," as the folks at Schorr packaging did, you'll see San Francisco at the top of the list, with Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston, Portland and Washington close behind.
But another survey suggested that big cities aren't the only place where the thieves operate. A survey done last year by video security company Blink found that rural residents in North Dakota, Vermont, Maine, New Mexico, Mississippi and Arkansas reported the highest numbers of folks who have had packages swiped. That map also looks a little like the opioid crisis map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Packages in less-populated, rural neighborhoods are targets for addicts-turned-thieves.
Of course, not all the packages swiped are from Amazon. (Amazon was founded by Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post.) But as consumer habits shift toward e-commerce and Amazon packages are plastered with Amazon logos, Porch Pirates would probably opt for the Amazon package over the one with Santa stickers, a return address starting with "Grandma" and "Fragile! Cookies inside!" written all over it.
And Amazon is anything but transparent about how many packages are stolen.
I parried for a while with one of their PR guys, who said everything is "on background, no direct quotes" and didn't provide me with a number of packages reported stolen, the monetary damage these thefts do to Amazon or what, exactly, Amazon's policy is on replacing anything reported stolen. It's a case-by-case basis, he said, which was my own personal experience. Sometimes they sent me a replacement, no problem. Other times I got stiffed.
The Amazon guy pointed to Amazon lockers as a theft-prevention option. (Sure, but they aren't always as convenient as they sound.) And he explained the package tracking that Amazon does. They even have new features where you actually let the driver into your home or car to leave the package there. Gee, thanks.
Porch Pirates are basically shoplifters. When shoplifters go to bricks-and-mortar shops, they cost retailers about $42 billion annually. Stores have security guards and cameras, and they take the hit when something is stolen.
In the e-commerce version of shoplifting, theft prevention is now on us, David, while Goliath just shrugs.
And it's not vigilante citizens out there -- it's cash-strapped police departments setting up sting operations and following leads from home camera clips, doing the legwork that big box stores used to be responsible for.
Pretty slick, eh?
Happy shopping. Don't forget the booby trap.
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!