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Package thieves are this year’s threat to Christmas

December 23, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Online ordering changed the holiday shopping landscape in recent years, but there’s at least one important reason Amazon and internet-based retailers can’t compete with Santa and his reindeer.

Package thieves have descended upon neighborhoods in Baton Rouge and across the country, dashing Christmas dreams and igniting social media crusades against them.

Documenting the quest for justice, local Facebook groups and neighborhood social media websites are filled with surveillance footage showing “porch pirates” sauntering up to doorsteps and snatching boxes. Law enforcement agencies have also been warning residents to take precautions when scheduling home deliveries, noting that thefts tend to rise with the increase in unguarded packages during the holiday season.

Many in the Baton Rouge area have turned to technology to help combat the issue, such as doorbells equipped with cameras linked to their cellphones or lock boxes that can securely store packages.

Amber Gorham, of Prairieville, received a notification on her phone one morning this month. Her doorbell setup relayed video of an Amazon package — her brother’s Christmas present — being delivered outside her house. Less than an hour later, she received another notification that showed the same package being stolen off her doorstep.

Gorham posted the video on Facebook, reported the theft to authorities and received a refund from Amazon. And luckily, she had time to reorder the present, shipping it this time to her dad’s house, and now has it wrapped and ready for Christmas. But she said her main concern is not the money — the gift cost around $30 — but the principle.

“It’s the moral that someone went on your property and took something that’s yours,” she said. “That people think they can get away with that, especially around Christmas when you’re supposed to be focused on giving.”

And that her package was stolen so soon after being delivered made her “awful suspicious” the thief was following an Amazon van around the neighborhood. The Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office issued a warrant in her case for Chad Rodrigue, 32, and he surrendered to authorities. He was booked on theft and criminal trespassing.

Local law enforcement agencies have been alerting the public about the threat of package thefts in recent weeks. The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office has promoted a photo of one such package thief on social media, asking for help locating Terri Leigh Huser, 25, who is suspected in several cases. The Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office arrested Verenize Alvarez, 22, a so-called “Amazon package thief.”

A 2017 study conducted by a packing company found that 31 percent of 1,000 people questioned had experienced package theft. In that same group, 53 percent said they have changed their plans to make sure they’re home to receive a package while 41 percent said they’ve avoided purchasing certain items online to avoid potential theft.

Louisiana was also found to be the state with the seventh most holiday thefts nationwide, according to security company Viviant’s analysis of FBI theft data during the holidays from 2012 through 2016.

Baton Rouge police spokesman Sgt. L’Jean McKneely Jr. said he advises residents to be aware that package thefts are happening in and around Baton Rouge. He said posting surveillance video of suspected thieves on social media is a good idea, but people should also notify authorities. Chad Jones, a detective with the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, agreed, explaining that investigators often use social media to help them investigate instances of package theft.

McKneely also recommended that residents do what they can to eliminate the problem, like having someone at home to receive packages when possible or picking them up at businesses.

It’s not clear exactly how many such cases have been reported to local law enforcement this holiday season or how many arrests have been made.

Videos and photos of Baton Rouge’s package thieves — some children, others middle-aged men or young women — have popped up across social media over the past weeks, filling Facebook feeds and driving heated discussions on Nextdoor and other community websites that connect people based on their locations.

At times, neighbors have used their online networks to team up, linking security footage from a front door or porch to surveillance video from further down the street, matching up a suspect with a vehicle. Others have not held back expressing their frustration with the thefts and their relatively easy execution. But some have taken to humor, posting about how thieves have really made out with their inexpensive and mundane packages, like boxes of cat litter.

Claire Couvillion, a resident in Southdowns, posted a video from her doorbell camera of her package thief on Nextdoor, Facebook and sent it to local TV stations. She said the man took three packages from her front porch in broad daylight — and the worst part it was while she was inside her house.

“I didn’t get the (doorbell camera) alert until maybe 20-30 seconds after he was on my porch, so I missed him,” Couvillion wrote in an email. “I was infuriated when it first happened.”

Police have said they linked at least one other theft case with Couvillion’s, but they have not made an arrest. Couvillion hopes she can receive a refund from Amazon for the clothing and cords case — but she said she won’t let the thief ruin her Christmas.

“At the end of the day, he has to lay his head on his own pillow and sit with what he has done to people,” she said.

But moving forward, Couvillion said she is looking into obtaining a lockbox to more securely receive packages, something that has worked for her sister. She knows being home for an arriving package, or going home once she receives an alert, is unrealistic as a nurse working 12-hour shifts.

Many of the package theft threads on social media note possible remedies, such as using the new Amazon lockers at Whole Foods, where customers can pick up packages instead of leaving them unattended at front doors.

Officials with both UPS and Amazon said these options are most secure. For UPS, customers can use the company’s nearly 9,000 “access points” nationwide, places like UPS stores or neighborhood grocery stores. Packages can be picked up or dropped off, like the Amazon lockers.

However, both companies noted that door-front thefts of packages remain much rarer than it might seem, with the vast majority of packages delivered without issue. But both said if something does go wrong, first contact local authorities and then a customer service representative.

Sometimes, though, just one theft is enough to set someone off, like the former NASA engineer who’s become the latest craze on the issue in the form of an 11-minute long YouTube video getting revenge on his package thieves “fabulously.′ ” Many in the greater Baton Rouge area felt a sort of satisfaction watching the thieves who took Mark Rober’s booby-trapped package cover them with glitter and hit them with fart spray.

“Brilliant!” one person wrote on Nextdoor. Another replied: “We need about a hundred of these.”

“Several people have sent me that video,” Couvillion said. “Hysterical! I wish I had that in my possession!”

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Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com

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